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All the Hallowed Roads

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"I was late to this, late to that

Late for the love of my life.

And when I die alone, When I die alone

When I die, I'll be on time.

And the only gifts from my Lord

Were birth and a divorce.

But, I've read this script, and the costume fits,

So, I'll play my part."

--Cleopatra, The Lumineers

*****

“Fuck. Fuck this stupid motherfucking shitting fuck cunt-town.”  He's just spilled the water he spent the last five minutes boiling, and burnt his hand trying to stabilize the bowl he was using.  

The bright promise of a bright fucking new day.

God, Negan hates this goddamn cracker town, and every goddamn thing in it. Including this god damn hospital.  He regrets coming here. Bringing Lucille here. As he pulls his throbbing fingers to his mouth on reflex to try to cool them off, he finds himself wishing that she had just died sooner, back when they were still in Virginia. At least there, they had had their routine and her doctors nearby, and her family, even though they both hated her parents. But when the barriers began to fall, and the streets had become overrun, they had been given a choice: stay and die, or be medivacked to another hospital. Initially, it was to be Grady Memorial in Atlanta; but, by the time that all of the equipment needed to ensure Lucille’s survival had been gathered, Atlanta was being napalmed like a scene out of a goddamn horror movie.


So of course the bright idea came to start evacuating people to more isolated areas, where the hospitals were smaller, but could be better fortified.  There were fewer people in general, let alone dead ones, around to overrun them. FEMA trailers had been set up, and helicopter landing zones, and even the fucking National Guard.  It worked for a while, but even this place got shot to shit in the end.  How much worse could it have been if they just stayed home?  He hates himself, even more than he already did, for dragging her here.  She didn't want to come.  She had figured dying in Richmond was just as good as dying anywhere else.  He'd told her to shut up with that bullshit, and to brace herself.   


And now here he is: stuck in a pisspoor town in the rural south, with no idea now where to go, or if anybody’s even left. He had seen the lines of cars on the highways from the helicopter, creating long snaking cracks into the distant horizons, no matter which way you look. He knows that, even if he can find a map and a car that runs, he’ll eventually be barricaded on the roads. He’ll be stuck, out in the open, with no idea what places are still safe. If there are even any.  So, he has taken for himself a sweet military trailer outside the hospital grounds. If he stays in it long enough, he can almost ignore the piles and piles of dead outside, and the downed helicopter beyond those, and every other goddamn sign left behind, telling him that his days are numbered.  Abandoned military rations have kept him alive so far, but he knows that he’ll run out eventually.
He’s been keeping to the hospital grounds for now, even though he hates it. There’s a creepy-ass room up on the upper floors, chained and padlocked with who knows how many dead inside. When he scavenges for supplies, they must hear him or something, because they always start pushing on the doors and groaning loud as shit. It creeps the fuck out of him, even though he knows they can’t get out.


Somewhere in that room, he knows without knowing, is Lucille. He’s never seen her wandering the hospital grounds.  Someone—whoever was left during the hospital’s last days while Negan himself was trying to figure out what the fuck to do after Lucille died and the gates finally came down—must have pushed her and as many of the wandering dead left as possible into that room. Probably, before dying himself. Once, after he realized he was alone and still standing, he tried to go back to her room, just to see if she was still there. He hadn’t been able to, in the end. He’d hung around outside her door, listening for those feeble moans that were only slightly more pathetic than her strained, living breaths in her last weeks. He’d heard nothing. He’d been so upset, he didn’t pay attention to where he was going, and he’d ran into a gurney blocking some other prior patient’s door. What a stupid ass thing to do. The door swung inward; who the fuck were they trapping in there that they thought would be able to get out?  Unless they thought the dead had figured out doorknobs or some shit.


More exploration of the hospital had led him to that dead room, and now he can’t go in there again. So now he just sits in his stupid little trailer, all by himself, drinking some beer he has found in the hospital kitchen, just…waiting for the end. It’s funny, really. Lucille’s diagnosis had felt like the end of the world, and all her months of treatment were just the long, slow drawing out of it. The world is ending a second time, and, this time, he gets to be the one to linger and wonder if today’s his last day. Now, he’s the one with the extended death sentence.  He, too, will wither into a shadow of his former self, unrecognizable...like Lucille.  And that was before she fucking died.  He feels himself becoming weaker already.

 

But for now, his hand hurts like a motherfucker, and he rushes over to the first aid supplies to pull out some anti-burn ointment.  It’s a weird instinct that tells him to look out the window of his little trailer as he tends to his hand. He’s developed the ability to just sense when there’s movement outside, even when he can’t see it. Whatever the reason for it, he decides to go to the window and look out and just about pisses himself.


He sees the shambling figure in a hospital gown and thinks 'Fuck, no. They’ve finally broken out.' He waits for more of them to just come spilling out of the hospital behind this one, like ants on a dog turd, but no. It’s just the one. Negan debates going out and dispatching it. He’s been using a gun he lifted off of one of the soldier’s corpses, but he’s down to his last magazine. It hardly seems worth the waste of a bullet for just one.


The former patient falls and Negan figures that’s the end of it. Clumsy fuckers eventually rot apart, especially in this god-forsaken humidity, and just sort of….implode, after a while. No, there’s no point wasting a precious bullet on a corpse that ain’t going nowhere.

 

Needless to say, he is shocked to shit when the guy manages to get his arms and legs beneath him and push himself *up.* And that’s when Negan realizes that this is no corpse.

 

That guy is alive.

 

“Well. Fuck. Me.”

 

****

 

It takes Negan a while to catch up with him, which is ridiculous since this guy’s only slightly more mobile than the dead ones. But, this guy appears to have better knowledge of the layout of this town, and he has managed to get to some kind of a park and has fallen over again. He’s freaking out over a half-eaten corpse that is still reaching out to him.

 

Negan feels a surge of annoyance. Jesus Christ, show a little composure, asshole. You should be used to this bullshit by now. 

 

Negan’s irritation increases when the guy manages to create some distance from the corpse and just…fucking sits down.  Puts his head in his hands and shakes it, as if there aren’t a thousand more just like the one he was freaking out about all around them. What is this asshole’s problem?

 

“Hey!” he calls out to the guy. And the fucker just turns and *waves* at him. Seriously! What the fuck?

 

“Seriously? What the fuck?” he gets close enough to yell.

 

“Sir. My name is Deputy Grimes. I need to know what happened here.”

 

“’Need to know?' What you need to know, Deputy Grimes, is how to handle your shit.” And with that he takes a baseball bat that’s been left at the park by some kid Negan prefers not to think too much about and proceeds to beat the everloving shit out of what’s left of the corpse.

 

Deputy Grimes (whose first name is Rick, he will find out later that day) freaks the fuck out. Which is pretty rude, considering.

 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Negan shouts as Grimes tries to grab the bat from him. “Why the fuck are you just sitting there with your ass in the wind?”

 

There’s a long silence, and then Grimes looks at him and (while Negan isn’t generally the type to notice these things), man, he’s got pretty blue eyes. “What day is it? What month? What’s happened here? I-I need to find my family. I need to get home.”

 

It takes the guy about three syllables to say a one syllable word, and Negan isn’t sure if it’s an accent or some kind of residual brain trauma. Either way, Negan figures out what has happened, and can’t decide whether to laugh or be amazed at this guy’s sheer balls-ass luck.  Mostly, he pities the guy because, Jesus Christ, this has got to suck.
So, because he’s feeling generous, and because this has been the first human contact he’d had for a week now, Negan helps him stand and explains what little he knows while Rick slowly leads the way. Rick is actually a deputy from this town, so he knows all the shortcuts to get to wherever it is they’re going. (Rick’s house, it turns out.)

 

Negan keeps the bat. Just in case.

 

For the first time, in a long time, Negan’s beginning to feel a little bit lucky at having found somebody else that might actually be able to get him the fuck out of here.

 

And then the fucktard manages to get himself brained with a shovel.

 

****

 

And so they meet Duane and his dad, Morgan.  Morgan is bug-fuck jumpy and starts waving a knife at Negan when he sees Rick go down and runs over.

 

"Man, I don't know who you two are, but you need to just back off!" the man he will later come to know as Morgan shouts, crazy as all get out.  The kid cowering behind him with a shovel looks fearfully at Negan, who must look like some kind of a crazed bear brandishing a baseball bat.

 

"I'm sorry, sir!  I thought he was one of the dead ones!" the kid stammers, while Morgan tries to push the kid behind himself.  

 

"Does he look fucking dead to you?"  Which is kinda unfair; even if Negan himself hadn't already thought so earlier, he has to admit that Rick looks like shit.  He's skinny, and his eyes are glazed with pain.  Now he has a bloody nose and a purpling bruise on the side of his face to add to whatever the fuck is going on with the bandaged part of his chest.  He is mumbling under his breath, something that sounds like "Carl," but with Rick's accent could probably be anything.  

 

"Look," Morgan says, warily.  "It's going to be dark soon.  We can't do this out on the street.  You and your friend can come with us to where we've been staying."  Negan lowers his bat, just a bit, until Morgan continues: "But, if you try anything--anything--both of you will get this in your damn throats."  Negan, who is bigger than Morgan by far, is less than impressed, but then Rick groans and his eyes roll back, and fuck it, Negan cannot lose this guy when he finally has a ticket out of here.

 

"Fine."  Between Morgan and Negan, they're able to carry Rick inside a blacked out house and get situated before the sun sets.

 

****

 

Later, when all explanations have been given (as much as any of them cares to give to complete strangers, anyway), Duane is sobbing into a pillow next to his father on an air mattress.  Negan leaves them to it, always uncomfortable with children crying, even when he's the deliberate cause of it.  Rick and Negan are now wearing clothes raided ("borrowed," Rick insists) from the prior owner of this house, and it makes the both of them feel a million times better.  Rick is peering out of a peephole at the dead outside.  Negan pulls him away by the arm over to a different part of the house, where the sound of their voices won't be overheard by anything outside.

 

"So, what now?" Negan asks.  

 

"Now..." Rick trails off, thinking.  "Now, we get some supplies.  Go to my station and see if any of the guns are left."  And fuck yeah, now Rick is talking.  "Morgan says a lot of the people were headed to Atlanta before they got stuck here.  So, that's where I'm going to go."

 

"The fuck?  Rick, no..."  Rick is already shaking his head.

 

"I have to find my family.  If they aren't here in this town, then that's where they went.  And that's where I'm going to go."  And Negan thinks it's cute, and just so sad, that Rick thinks that finding his family is even a fucking option anymore.  It pisses him off a little, too, because Negan doesn't have anybody to find, even if he wanted to.

 

"Atlanta is a fucking wasteland.  And how the fuck are you going to get there?  The world is fucking over."

 

"You don't have to come with me," Rick says, voice quiet and face solemn.  But his eyes are looking at Negan expectantly.  For a second, Negan wants to pretend that they still live in a world where your friendly, neighborhood officer can just come up to you and give you a disappointed look and the world just fucking rolls into place.

 

And, fuck it.  What the fuck else does he have to do now, anyway? 

 

****

 

Rick offers for Morgan and Duane to come with them, and Morgan declines. He bitches and bullshits about needing target practice and resting and all that happy horseshit, but Rick and Negan both know why he wants to stay behind.  Rick accepts it, this desire of Morgan’s to put his wife to rest, and Negan respects it, in a way. But, at the same time, he thinks it’s total bullshit. He knows, just like he knew he couldn’t do it for Lucille, that Morgan will never be able to do it. And if it were just Morgan, then Negan would just say 'fuck it; you’re on your own' and they would just go.


But it isn’t just Morgan. It’s Duane, too. The kid is only a couple years younger than the kids Negan used to coach back in Virginia and, just like them, Duane talks some good shit, but Negan knows that, once the time comes, he’ll be crying like a baby. Even a loser like Negan can reduce kids like Duane to tears, no problem. Ain’t no way Duane can handle what the world’s got to offer him now.


And then there’s Rick, who hasn’t completely figured out how shit works now and is making noises about possibly staying a little longer until Morgan is ready and, no. They aren’t doing that shit.

 

“No, we’re not doing that shit.” Because once Negan thinks it, he says it.


“Negan…” Rick trails off and is looking sweaty and weak still, and Negan almost gives in, if only in order to give him enough time to rest, but Rick walks off to continue packing his bag full of fucking arsenal, so Negan assumes that he’s at least won that battle. While Rick is packing up the squad car, Negan walks over to where Morgan is instructing Duane on how to properly hold a gun.


“Hey, kid, why don’t you go help Ranger Rick for a minute,” Negan declares. Morgan doesn’t look thrilled about Negan bossing his kid around, but Morgan won’t argue with helping Rick out. Negan waits a long minute in silence, sucking on his teeth, trying to think of the right thing to say.


Morgan beats him to it, breaking the silence: “Rick says he’s going to give us a radio. Every morning at dawn, he’s going to turn his on and we’ll try and check in with each other. And when we’re ready to move on—“

 

“You ain’t ever gonna fucking be ready.” Negan snaps. And if Negan was the type of man to believe in such shit, he would swear he and Morgan share a moment of understanding, because Morgan’s face goes from slack-jawed to resolved. But Negan doesn’t, so he just walks off back to the waiting car.

 

A couple of hours later, when they are on the road, Negan is shocked when they hear Morgan’s voice, weak and staticky, over the radio, asking if they haven’t gone too far down the road, yet. Even though it means a delay, going back for them, Rick is visibly relieved when Morgan and Duane pile their crap in the trunk and climb into the car. Negan gives Duane the front passenger seat, so he doesn’t have to hang out in the caged section of the car, cuz Negan’s a nice fucking guy.


He and Morgan share a look in the backseat while Rick patiently explains how police radios work to Duane.  He never figures out whether Morgan found the balls to do it, or if Morgan just decided to accept that he couldn’t and chose to leave it behind. Either way, it doesn’t matter.


They’re all finally on their way.

Chapter Text

The delay does end up costing them.  They run out of gas about two-thirds of the way to Atlanta.  Rick has managed to find back country roads and little-used highways, which means that they’ve avoided getting trapped in the traffic jams and miles-long car build-ups.  But it also means that they run out of places to get gas.  All the stations are out and, worse, filled with the walkers of other unlucky bastards who died stranded at the gas station, too.  None of the cars have gas to be siphoned and, after the 15th one they try, Negan starts kicking the fender of one as hard as he can.

“Hey!  Calm down!” Rick shouts.  “It’s alright.  We’ll just have to walk.”

“Well, I’m so relieved now, Rick.  Thank God…Rick says it’s going to be alright!”  His sarcasm is dripping from his words, his arms flailing dramatically, and he wonders if this is what the end of the world does to people: turns them into crazed caricatures of themselves. 

Rick shoots him an unimpressed look, like ‘Seriously?’ and Negan is reminded of Lucille so vividly it hurts.  He looks over Rick’s shoulder and sees Duane asking Morgan “Daddy, are we going to be ok?”  Morgan puts a hand on Duane’s head, clearly at a loss.  They’ve abandoned their safety to take a chance, and their gamble is already beginning to falter.

This is it, Negan, he thinks to himself.  Time to be a goddamn winner.

“What did I just say, Duane?  Rick, here, says it’s going to be alright.”  Rick narrows his eyes at Negan, like he’s waiting for Negan to drop the other shoe and say something douchey.  But instead, Negan just full on smiles at him and lifts his eyebrows, putting on his best shit-eating face.  Rick shakes his head and rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling a little as he does it.  Again, Negan feels that stab in his chest that he’s come to associate with Lucille.  He’d thought the days of tolerant amusement at his antics were long gone.

They grab everything they can carry while still maintaining speed, and leave.  Those first few steps away from the highway and off of the paved road feel momentous in some way.  They're vulnerable, out in the open, with little more than the clothes on their backs.  Negan has never had so little. 

They walk for hours.  Duane slows them down, but he’s actually a fucking trooper.  But of course he is; he hit Rick in the face with a goddamn shovel.  Kid’s got balls.  Rick walks in front, with Morgan and Duane in the middle.  Negan brings up the rear.  He makes a filthy joke about that, of course.  Rick shoots back “That’s what your mom told me” and Negan kind of loves Rick in that moment, along with whatever asshole friend Rick must have had once upon a time to have prepared Rick to sass back so quickly.  Morgan shoots them a disapproving glare and darts his eyes to Duane.  Rick looks sheepish and says “Sorry,” while Negan laughs.

And it feels….good.

***

Darkness is beginning to settle in and they are spared from having to make any hard decisions about where to sleep when they stumble upon a farmhouse tucked off the highway.  It looks like something out of American Fucking Gothic, or some shit, but it’s four walls and a roof and Negan could not give less of a shit. 

He and Rick peer into the windows of the house, looking for the owners, while Morgan and Duane wait toward the end of the driveway, keeping an eye out for Walkers.  Negan and Rick both see it at the same time; two dead bodies lie on the floor and the words “Forgive Me” are written on the wall.  And this is it.  This is hell.  The rest of the world didn’t die; it was Rick and Negan and Morgan and Duane.  They have died and gone to hell, and will never see anyone they’ve ever loved ever again, and nothing they do will matter…

He’s snapped out of his freaky mental breakdown by the sound of Rick retching.  Which of course gets him going.

“Aw…aw, shit.  That’s fucking nasty.”  He spits and wipes his hand across his mouth.

“It’s gonna smell worse inside.  We can’t stay in there tonight.”

“Uh, yeah.  No fucking argument here.”   

“We can sleep in the barn tonight.  Rest.  I figure it’s only another 30 miles to Atlanta.  We might as well pace ourselves.”

“Yeah.”  Negan sits for a minute, letting his stomach settle.  Rick is standing there, awkward for some reason.

“Hey, I never got a chance to thank you.  For helping me out back in Cynthiana.  I was so…disoriented.  Anything could have happened.  I’m sure I’m only alive because of you.  I appreciate it.”  Rick says it like Negan helped him with a door while his arms were full.  Like it was no big deal and just an expected act of helpfulness.  More than that, like Rick would have been equally grateful for either act of kindness, no matter how disproportionate. 

Negan can’t handle it for almost a full minute.  But he gets his shit together and says “Yeah, well, that’s what your mom said.”  Rick barks out a surprised laugh, and Negan does that bro man-punch on the arm thing that’s always served him well in moments like these.

“Come on.  Let’s get this barn figured out.”

Barns, it turns out, are fucking uncomfortable.  They sleep on a pile of hay, which they keep as far from their small little fire as they can.  Thankfully (sorta) the barn is old and has lots of ventilation in the form of holes in the roof.  But it’s got a door that closes, so that’s all Negan gives a shit about. 

They sleep fitfully, none of them used to sleeping outdoors, and wake up early the next morning.  They’re packing up their shit when Rick smiles and calls Duane over.

“Duane, look.”  He points to a horse grazing in a paddock that they’d somehow managed to miss yesterday.  Negan doesn’t get the big deal, but then again he’s never really been an animal guy.

“Cool!” Duane says and runs over to the gate.

“Careful, now,” Rick cautions walking over, too.  But there’s nothing to worry about; the horse is tame and he comes over to Duane and nuzzles his hand.  “I guess the previous owners forgot to let him out when they left.”  Rick carefully does not mention the state of the previous owners, Negan notices.  “Poor guy.  He’s gotten by on the grass so far, but he’ll eventually run out.”

“What’s his name?” Duane asks.

Rick pauses.  “Well, I don’t know.  But since his owners are gone, why don’t you give him a new one?”  Duane scrunches up his nose real hard, like he’s thinking.  It’s fucking adorable.

“Alex.”

“Alex?”  Rick laughs.  “Well, that seems as good a name as any.”

“Can he come with us to Atlanta?”  Duane asks.  Negan and Rick look at each other, like they’re weighing the possibilities.  One horse can’t carry four people, and they all need to stick together.

“I think it’s better if Alex is given a chance to start a new life, son,” Morgan chimes in.  “Maybe he’ll find his family.”

“Just like us!” Duane says, excited, while Rick opens the gate and the horse skittishly trots out and away.

Yeah.  Negan thinks about the two corpses inside the house not 20 feet away.  Just like us.

***

 Another day and a night and half a day, and they can finally see the outline of Atlanta in the distance.  Negan has never appreciated just how fucking big the country is until he’s had to fucking walk across it.  As they get closer, Negan likes it less and less.  It is creepy as shit to see so many cars leaving the city, while the highway leading into the city is fucking deserted.  If Georgia gets tumbleweeds, then one should be fucking rolling by right now.  It’s a huge red flag and Negan doesn’t like it at all.  They’re currently standing in the middle of the highway, walking four astride.  The highway, which has been four lanes up to this point, is about to split into a divided highway: ingoing to the right, outgoing to the left.  Once the highways become elevated and widened, they will have nowhere to go if shit gets real. 

“Rick, let’s stop.”

“We’ll be to the outskirts by nightfall, if we keep going.”

“No.  I told you; Atlanta was being napalmed when we got diverted to your town.  There is nothing here, Rick.  There are a million fucking cars on the road.  Everyone was leaving and something happened.  We can’t go.”

“We have to!” Rick shouts.

“No.  We fucking don’t.”  Negan starts bowing up, using his formidable size to dwarf Rick.  It’s a move he’s used all his life and it’s always worked. 

But Rick is having fucking none of it.  He looks right up into Negan’s face and calmly, coolly meets his eyes.  With his hat casting a shadow over his face, it looks badass, Negan can admit.  But this is too fucking important.  He plants his feet firmly and flexes his arms while gripping his hands into fists.  Rick’s hand subtly finds its way to his holster.

Neither of them will ever know just how important a confrontation that could have ended up being, because right that second Duane shouts out: “Daddy!”

Rick and Negan both turn their heads at the exact same time.

“Oh no,” Rick breathes and starts running.  Sometime during their confrontation, Morgan had directed Duane to rest over by one of the stalled cars.  Nobody had seen one of the walkers stuck under one of the tires of the car.  It has latched onto Duane’s leg and is now snarling up a storm.  Morgan picks up a pole that he’s found amongst the debris and, after missing a few times, manages to bash the asshole’s head in.  But Duane’s shouts have attracted others, who are now staggering out of the nearby treeline.

There’s about a dozen of the Walkers, and only four of them.  Three, discounting Duane, who has scuttled under another car at his father's instruction.  But Negan’s blood is up from just before and he is fucking ready.  He tosses off his pack, draws his gun, and starts shooting the closest ones.  He hears other shots echoing his, so he knows Rick has pulled his out as well.  To his left, Morgan is attempting to shoot as well; turns out, maybe they should have stayed a few days to let Morgan practice, after all.

He manages to bring down three from a distance, but he completely misses the one on his right, and he hears its growl in his ear before he even realizes it.  He swings his arm around to bring his gun to bear on it, but it has already flung its rotting arms at his, and the force is more than he was expecting.  It knocks the gun straight out of his hand.

The momentum forces Negan up against a car, the Walker’s snapping, biting face inches from his.  It’s the closest Negan has ever been to one, his wife excepted.  It’s fucking disgusting.  The corpse’s eye has fallen out of its socket and is now dangling over his cheek by optic nerves and rotted flesh.  It looks like a fucking cock slapping against a scrote and Negan cries out in disgust.  He gets his left forearm shoved under the fucker's chin, the only thing keeping it from digging its clacking mandibles into his neck.  Negan’s right hand flails out trying to grab his gun, but it’s fucking inches from his grasp.  Instead, his hand falls on the pack he’d tossed off.  His hand grabs onto something, and for a horrible minute Negan thinks he’s grabbed on to one of the corpse’s femur bones or something awful.  But no, it’s the handle of the bat he took, still tucked into his pack, with the handle sticking out. 

He grabs it and yanks as hard as he fucking can.  Maybe it’s because he’s about to die that he thinks of Lucille.  But he sees her, clear as day, standing right there, if he can just get to her.  She looks good.  Damn good, actually.  Better than she’s looked in years if he’s honest.  She’s smiling at him and all he needs to do is just get this fucker off of him and he can be standing right there next to her. 

With as fierce of an arc as he can get, he brings the grip of the bat into the corpse’s head.  It falls off of him and Negan’s able to scramble up.  He looks up, and around, desperately looking for Lucille.  She’s not there, anymore.

And he gets pissed.

He grips the bat properly and just fucking hammers it down on the Walker.  It wasn’t moving before and it sure as shit won’t be now.  Its head just splits like a rotting grapefruit, but Negan doesn’t care.  He doesn’t want to stop ‘til he hits pavement.  He brings it down again and again and again…

“Negan!”  Negan looks up just in time to see Rick walking toward him, arm extended.  At first, he thinks Rick’s trying to take his bat and Negan is ready to put up a fight about that.  Only when he feels the blood and gore dripping into his face does he realize he can’t see properly and that’s actually a gun in Rick’s hand.  Is Rick going to shoot him for killing a corpse now?

Negan hears the gun fire and it is loud as shit so close to him.  Only when he feels a huge splatter of gore hit his back does he realize that Rick has just saved his life from a Walker behind him.

Rick nods at him, before turning to shoot one more.  The last one, it turns out. 

Morgan yanks Duane out from under the car where he has taken refuge, and they are both quietly sobbing in relief.  All Negan can hear is Rick and himself, breathing heavily from the exertion.  Rick leans against a car and bends over to rest his forearms on his knees.  Negan looks down at his bat and remembers his weird fucking…vision, or whatever.

His fingers hurt so bad and he eases the iron grip he has on the bat, only to squeeze it tightly again.  This, and Lucille, were the only things that saved his life just now.  He squeezes the bat again.  Lucille.  She’s still looking out for him, after all.

Rick coughs and Negan remembers that he’s there.  Lucille...and Rick.

Before Negan can say anything, Rick perks his head up, listening.  Negan waits a second, and then he hears it, too.

On the wind is the moan of more Walkers.  A lot of them, it sounds like.  They’re coming from the city.

Shit.

“We’ve got to get off the road!” Rick shouts.  They gather their dropped stuff and run off the road toward the treeline.  Duane is still crying, but at least he’s doing it silently.  They make it about a hundred yards from the road and another 100 feet into the woods before they stop and hide behind a hill. Negan and Rick both lie flat on the ground and peek over the crest of the small hill.

A huge fucking crowd of the Walkers staggers by, shuffling down the road, bouncing off the cars like god damn pinballs.  They were obviously drawn to the sound of their gunfire, but now seem to be losing whatever momentum they had gained.  Luckily, for whatever reason, they're sticking to the road.  But there are so, so many of them.  It’s terrifying to even think about.

Which is why all of them jump and turn when a voice calls from behind them in the woods.

“Hey!  Dumbasses!” 

Chapter Text

The scrawny Asian kid in the baseball hat (who answers to Glenn and not Short-Round, Negan discovers) guides them back toward his camp.  Apparently, he and a bunch of others hadn’t made it to Atlanta in time before the city was overrun and abandoned.  And so, they have settled about 10 miles outside of the edges of the city, near a quarry in the woods.  Glenn is currently bitching at them, but it’s halfhearted.

“Me and a bunch of others went on a run into the city a couple of days ago.  It’s a good thing you guys didn’t stroll into town while we were there; it would have messed everything up big time.  I was going to go back in today to get more supplies, until some assholes decided to stir them all up and draw them out of the city.  Now I’ll have to wait a day or two for them to clear out before I can get back in.”

“Jesus Christ, kid, we said we were sorry.”  Negan has perched Lucille over his shoulder as they walk.  It bumps his pack on occasion, but he feels better for having it out and available.  Glenn seems harmless enough, but who even knows about whoever else might be in his camp.

Glenn scowls a little, but it melts off his face, like he’s simply not used to maintaining annoyance.  Ah, to be young.  “It isn’t much further.  There’s a bend in the road up ahead, and it’s around there.”  Negan wants to say something about how maybe telling the first strangers you see where your refugee camp is located isn’t such a good idea, but he notices Rick slowing his pace to walk alongside him first.

“Negan,” Rick starts, “I just wanted to say you were right.  If we had gone in there, we would have been overrun by all of those Walkers.  The city isn’t safe, after all.”  Negan’s impressed; most men are not big enough to admit when they’re wrong.  Rick looks so disappointed, however.   

“Don’t worry about it,” Negan says, giving an experimental one-handed overhand swing with Lucille, mostly to distract from the moment.  “You got us this far, and it’s farther than any of us has managed to get on our own.  Although, it might be helpful to remember that I am always fucking right.”

Rick rolls his eyes, but before he can say whatever it is he was going to say, a young voice splits the air.

“DAD!”  At first, Negan thinks it’s Duane, but then he gets a look at Rick’s face, which has just…melted.

“CARL!” Rick yells and just about collapses in relief.

They have made it to the camp.

***

And Holy Shit, he did it.  Rick did it.  He has somehow managed to claw his way out of his own grave and travel the miles to Atlanta and find his family.  The odds against it were astronomical and yet Rick Fucking Grimes has somehow accomplished it.  And now Negan has to sit here and process what this means.  He had been humoring Rick all this time; he no more believed that Rick would find his family (alive, anyway) than he did Lucille herself would come back to life.  But he'd been so alone and had no plan, and then all of a sudden he wasn't, and he did.  He'd figured they would wander their way to Atlanta, search for a sufficient time, but would find no sign of Rick's family, because of course they would be dead.  Rick would grieve and by then Negan would have a plan for what to do, with or without Rick, Morgan, and Duane.  Hopefully, with.  The details were blurry, but the main structure was there.

But this...this changes everything.

 Rick runs full tilt at his son and just scoops him up.  A pretty woman Rick’s age runs up to the pair of them, and Negan assumes it’s Rick’s wife.  They are hugging and crying and…it is fucking beautiful is what it is.  Negan watches for a long minute, enjoying the miraculous.  And, doing his best to stamp down on his fierce jealousy.  He'd been assuming that he, Rick, and Morgan were all part of the Widower's Club.  But now, Rick has his wife and son.  Morgan has his son, at least.  And Negan is alone.

While Rick, Lori, and Carl reunite, Negan gets introduced to the rest of the camp.  There’s Glenn, who he has met.  A guy in a ridiculous hat introduces himself as Dale and, judging by the immediate questions about Negan's life before, is a huge busybody.  He tries hitting on either of the two hot blondes wandering around the camp.  He is brutally rebuffed, despite his clarification that the fact that they are sisters is in no way a hindrance for him.  A man named Ed grunts in Negan’s general direction upon introduction, and Negan has him pegged immediately as a cocksucker, but his wife Carol seems sweet, and their daughter Sophia is cute as a button.  A hispanic man named Morales has a wife named Eliza and a couple kids named Louis and Miranda running around.  Then, there’s T-Dog, Jim, and Jackie, who seem to be the other members of the "Alone With No Family Left" club of the apocalypse.   

He hears a mutter behind him: “Just what we needed, another couple of niggers.”  And that’s how Negan meets Merle and Daryl Dixon.  Of all the people in the camp, these two stick out like warts on a cooch.  Everybody else is a part of a family or had some valid reason to have been alone and on the way to Atlanta.  Crackers like these…they just don’t fit.  He knows that these times breed strange bedfellows, but he senses immediately that these two have lived off the grid long enough that they don’t need a camp full of people to stay alive.

The last person he meets is Shane, who comes up to Negan and extends a hand to shake.  It will mean switching Lucille to his other hand, and Negan does not like the way Shane is appraising Negan.  Morgan he seems to dismiss as being harmless, what with him having a small child with him.  But Negan, Shane keeps eyeing.

"Thank you, so much, for helping Rick find his way here.  We had no idea."

"Way I see it, Rick led us here.  Morgan, Duane, and I were all stuck back in your little podunk town til we met up with him.  Glad we finally made it to the party."  

"Shane, Negan and Morgan and I, we all got out here together," Rick smiles, Carl clinging to Rick's neck.

"Well, then they're welcome to stay," Shane says, warily.  Negan chooses to be amused by it.  As if this Shane could stop Negan if Negan were told he couldn't stay when he'd already decided he was going to. 

***

Sophia and Carl take in Duane immediately and it breaks his heart to see them and the Morales children playing together like the world hasn’t ended.  It's as if they don’t even realize that everything that men like Rick and even Negan himself did to make them strong enough to bear the weight of all their parents’ dreams has been for goddamn nothing.  Their whole camp numbers 23.  Twenty-three left, out of billions.

Since he doesn't have one, he's allowed to share a tent with Jim, who is a humorless motherfucker, but who also doesn't bitch about it.  He spends most of his time staring off into the distance and just generally being creepy.  There's a rumor that he saw his family torn apart in front of him and that...well, that sucks.  So Negan doesn't hassle him about anything.  In the distance, he can hear Rick and Lori whispering in their tent right next door.  He hears Ed barking something at Carol in the tent on the other side and, a little further away, Dale is mumbling lowly to Glenn as he tinkers on his RV.  

After days and days of silence, the noise is deafening.  He doesn't sleep well that night. 

 ***

Rick’s buddy Shane has been fucking Rick’s wife.  Negan figures it out instantly, because of course he does.  One cheater knows another. 

Even if he didn’t have his own shitty behavior to draw from, Negan’s always been fucking amazing at reading people.  And the guilty looks Lori and Shane shoot at each other when Rick isn’t looking give them away immediately.  Nobody ever brings their affair up in the camp, so Negan assumes they were at least discreet.  Either that, or everybody fucking knows and simply respects Rick or Lori enough not to say shit. 

And Rick, poor, good-hearted Rick, never figures it out.

(Of course Rick figured it out.  Later, once they’ve started fucking, Rick will bring it up, how he knew.  By then, Negan will be familiar with Rick’s uncanny perceptiveness, and he’ll realize Rick had probably figured it out long before Negan even had. 

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“I did.  Lori wanted to come clean about it, and I told her I knew.  She was my wife for almost 15 years.  You just know.”  And Negan thinks of Lucille, who had also known in her own uncanny way, and feels like *such* a douchebag.  How much longer had she known before Negan had told her?  Before he’d ended it?  “Once it was out in the open, there was no point discussing it anymore.  It was done, and I’d forgiven her long before then.”  Negan, who’d never met another person's awkward secret he hadn't been willing to loudly proclaim, can’t even understand that, but it makes him love Rick even more.  

“At least, I thought I had forgiven her.  I was so awful to her in the end,” Rick says, voice watering dangerously.  “I did forgive her.  I *did.*”

“She was grateful for your forgiveness.  She was.”

“But for so long, I was punishing her.”

“She was grateful for that, too."

And Rick has surely figured Negan’s own story out now, too.  But, true to character, says nothing further about it.) 

***

Rick and Shane basically disagree on everything, but the one thing they seem to agree on is that they need more guns.  Shane practically jizzes over the guns Rick carried all the way from Cynthiana, but Rick wants more.  Enough for everyone to have one, and the ammo to go with it.  Negan cannot disagree.

Rick decides to accompany Glenn on one of his ventures into Atlanta for supplies.  Jim, who used to be a mechanic in Atlanta apparently, tells them where a gun store is located.  He sullenly declines to come.  T-Dog agrees to come instead, and Negan sure as shit isn’t going to be left behind.  Shane and Lori look aggravated with Rick for leaving so soon after having arrived.

“Don’t worry, Lori, Shane.  I’ll take care of Rick for you.  I’ll be on him like brown on shit.”

“Mommy, Mr. Negan said a bad word,” Carl whispers, and Negan laughs and claps his shoulder.  He would ruffle his hair, but Carl has taken to wearing Rick’s hat and it is cute as fuck.  All his career, his students used to annoy him, but he always loved them.  Wanted their love in return.  Now, these kids are a million times more precious.

“Morgan, you want to come?” Rick asks.

“Nah, I think I’ll just slow you down.  I think I’ll stay here and help with the washing or something.”  The ladies in camp practically wet up over Morgan's solicitude. 

“How ‘bout we bring Daryl?”  Negan chimes in, slyly sweet.  Daryl looks surprised, and Merle pretends like he doesn’t care, but Negan is not fooled.  Those two have some bullshit going on, and Negan wants them separated as much as possible while the group is divided.

“Yeah, five of us should be enough,” Rick agrees.  "Don't worry, Lori.  We'll be quick.  We know what we need and if we can't do it, then we'll head right back."  Negan is watching Shane as this conversation is going on.  Shane has his hands on his hips and is looking down at his feet.  Negan wonders if Shane really hopes they make it back safe.

 ***

They run into trouble almost immediately.  The Walkers have cleared off the road, thank fuck, but there’s a bunch of them right around the fence line that Glenn uses to enter the city.  They’re quickly dispatched thanks to Lucille and a hatchet Rick has brought from camp, but there are too damn many on the other side of the fence that they will have to get through. 

Negan would really like to know what the fuck goes on in Rick’s brain, because he somehow comes up with the crazy idea to split open the corpses and rub their innards on their clothes.  Negan could fucking murder Rick.

“Fuck you, Rick, you cocksucker.  This is disgusting,” he bitches as Rick drops a slithering trail of intestines on his shoulder.  “Ugh, God, fuck you…” 

He stops for a second to admire the sizable hurl Glenn has just accomplished over the matter, and just continues on.  “This is a giant steaming shit of an idea, Rick.”

“Shit, I don’t see why we’re bothering being sneaky if you’re just gonna run your damn mouth the entire time,” Daryl drawls. 

“Look, I know smelling like shit is what you’re used to, but I just finally got clean,” Negan bitches back.  But he takes it for a fair point, and, unbelievably, they make their way into the city and, eventually, the gun store without being noticed.

Later, when the skies open up and the rain falls, washing away their disgusting disguise, Negan drills a hard-ass punch into Rick’s shoulder.  “Fucking told you so!” he shouts, as they all grab a bag of guns and ammo apiece and run in different directions.  Glenn and Daryl run one way, T-Dog another, and Rick and Negan manage to duck into what was once a Department Store.

Thankfully the Walkers can’t figure out revolving doors and pull-down gates.  They manage to secure their location, and Rick decides to watch from the windows as the hoard meanders in the streets. 

“It was working for a while.  If we can wait for the rain to pass, we can grab another one and do it again.  Try and meet up with the others at the fenceline.” 

“Fuck you, doing that again!”  Negan has already begun ripping off the over-sized shirt he’d been wearing to pile the gore on.  He tosses it aside.

“Well, if I’d known you were going to worry about your delicate sensibilities, I would have left you at camp,” Rick says, amusement rich in his voice. 

“Ha!  You wouldn’t have.  Otherwise, you would have spent the entire time worrying about coming home to find me and Lori all snuggled together, and gotten your skinny ass eaten.”  Negan is looking through the clothing racks as he says it, and almost kicks himself for his fat mouth.  But Rick doesn’t know, and the best thing is to pretend like nothing happened.  It must be successful, because Rick chuckles and finally pulls himself away from the grimy windows and heads into the recesses of the store.  He gets a good look at Negan.

“Huh.” Rick says.

“What?” Negan is already zipping up the leather motorcycle jacket that he’s pulled off the mannequin.  It’s fucking badass and it does not smell like Walker gunk, which, aside from the fact Negan has always wanted one and never could afford it, is the reason Negan’s grabbed it.

“No, nothing,” Rick says, too straight-faced innocent, before smirking.

“Whatever, Ranger Rick.  No man in polyester pants is going to talk to me about style.”

They wait out the rain and, thankfully for Negan’s new jacket, the Walkers have decided to move on, and so they can just walk right out of the back of the store.  They rendezvous by the fenceline as planned, but there’s a problem.

Glenn’s been taken.

***

The meet with the gangsters goes completely different from how everyone expected and they get Glenn back unharmed.  He would be happy about that, except that Rick decides to give the Vatos some of the guns they just went to all this trouble to get.

Negan storms off, afraid he’ll fucking punch Rick in his well-meaning face if he stays in the room.  He walks into what must have been the recreation room of the nursing facility and he sees a woman who can’t be younger than 80.  She’s hooked up to an oxygen tank, shriveled shaking hands taking a cup of pills from Felipe’s hand.

And Negan can’t handle it.  He stumbles out of the room and into a little courtyard area where he proceeds to just fucking burst into tears.  Rick finds him outside.  Negan’s still crying like a little pussy, and Rick looks at him for a second to make sure he’s just crying and then looks away.  He shifts his weight and puts his hands on his hips, tilting his head back like he doesn’t have a care in the world.  He looks for all the world like an officer just out for a stroll, leaning back to enjoy the sunshine. 

“My wife….she was dying.  Before the end, I mean.  Fucking cancer.  Couldn’t even get up to take a piss by herself at the end.  I spent whole days just cleaning her up and feeding her.”  There’s a long pause.  “They wanted me to leave her behind.  When Richmond fell, they said it would be a waste of time to move her.  They told me to save myself.”

“What did you do?”  Rick is looking at him now, blue eyes wide.

Negan glares at Rick.  “I told them to fuck right off.  I told them I’d kill anyone who tried to make me leave her behind.  And I said I’d kill anyone who left me behind.”  And Negan had meant it.  “Fucking doctors and nurses.  Can’t do shit.  Couldn’t save her before.  And wouldn’t do shit for her at the end.  Those dirty punks in there have more balls than any of them.”

Rick tilts his head at Negan, and does that not-quite smile that he does when he’s been told an answer that satisfies him.  “You were a good husband.”  Rick means it to be reassuring, Negan’s sure, but, man….fuck Rick Grimes’s approval.  What the fuck does he know?  Rick doesn’t know anything about Donna, the woman he was fucking on the side.  How it took the diagnosis of his wife to break it off.  How SHE had had to be the one to break it off.  And here Rick is, smiling benevolently at him as if a few pathetically sincere gestures at the end made up for a lackluster beginning, and a downright terrible middle.    It pisses him right off.

“Don’t you wish your wife had stayed with you?”  Negan’s an asshole.  He says it only to hurt Rick and burst his little bubble.  Because no matter what, no matter how shitty a husband Negan was, he’d been willing to die by Lucille’s side if it came to it.  No one had done that for Rick. 

Negan feels great--fucking amazing--for a whole goddamn second, desperately ready for the ineffectual punch Negan knows Rick is gonna throw his way, and the cathartic fight that’s sure to come.  But there’s nothing.  Negan looks at Rick and he looks upset, but not angry.  He clenches his jaw and looks away, and then looks back.  Negan half expects him not to answer, or to deflect and say they need to get going, 'cuz they really do.

“Yes.”  The answer is quiet, but unequivocal.  Guilty.  “I know it’s wrong to want that.  She had to take care of Carl and make sure they got out alive, or there would have been nothing worth waking up for.   But seeing her face when I woke up, or just….knowing she was there, somehow.  It would have meant everything.”

Rick steps away and gives Negan a chance to get his shit together and nut up.  Rick wishes the nursing home protectors luck, and they leave.  The bags of guns are heavy when they trudge through the town, back to the fenceline and, eventually, back to camp.  The walk is quiet and Negan feels deeply disturbed in some way, but also a lot lighter.  It helps, to know that Lucille, for all her telling him to move on and leave her the fuck alone, had probably been happy to have him there.

(Later, he’ll look back and realize that that afternoon in the courtyard is the last time he cries over Lucille.  He won’t be able to decide if it means he’s becoming more or less healthy.)

He’s so wrapped up in his own thoughts he only barely registers the disquiet on Daryl’s face.  He’s quiet, Merle’s little shadow of a brother, but he’s not as inscrutable as he seems to think he is.  Whatever he saw today has also touched him, and he doesn’t look happy about it.

Negan figures out why once they get back to the camp, and Merle has pulled a gun and is holding Carol hostage. 

“There you are, little brother.  I think it’s time we do like we planned and take our shit and leave.”

Chapter Text

You could hear a sweatdrop fall off a ballsack in the silence.  Merle has Carol, who is just tall enough to fit under Merle’s chin, unfortunately, in front of him, gun pressed against her temple.  She’s sobbing quietly.  Ed is lying dazed on the ground, so Negan can only assume that he made some kind of defense of his wife before being struck down, which is more credit than Negan would have ever given him, to be honest.  Andrea, Amy, and Dale are over by the RV and have frozen at Merle’s instruction.  The others appear to have been returning from the quarry and are now stuck in some weird limbo.  Merle has fucked up, though; Negan, T-Dog, Daryl, Rick, and Glenn are coming up the road and are therefore blocking Merle’s clearest path out.  Rick immediately runs forward as far as he dares, calling out Merle’s name.

“This doesn’t have to happen,” Rick reassures, but Negan doesn’t fail to notice that, while Rick’s left hand is reaching out in a supplicating manner, the right one is resting on his holster.  Somewhere over to Merle’s right, Shane takes the opportunity to pull his own gun. 

“Don’t even think about it, prick, or I will fucking blow this bitch’s head off.”  Shane lowers his gun, but doesn’t drop it, before Merle turns back to Rick.  “Sorry, Officer Friendly, but this bunch of pussies is slowing us down.  Daryl!  You deaf, boy?  Gather up their shit and load it up on a car.”

“Merle…” Daryl starts, obviously having second thoughts.  Good, Negan thinks.  Use that.  Negan’s not sure if Rick somehow seems to read Negan’s mind, or if they are simply sensing the same weakness.

“Daryl,” Rick starts, speaking over his shoulder.  “You know that we’re stronger together.  And that we can all help each other out.  You’ve seen that.”  Daryl looks hugely conflicted and, for the first time, surprisingly young.

“Merle, let’s just fucking leave.  Ain’t nothing they have worth this bullshit.”  Daryl may mean to sound nonchalant, but it just sounds scared.

“What’s the matter with you, boy?  Hanging around with this little pansy turnin’ ya soft?” Merle asks with a nod to Rick.  Daryl ignores the jab and gestures carelessly to Carol.

“Man, just let her go.  She’s got a kid, Merle.”

At this mention, Carol widens her eyes and begins stammering in panic, “Yes!  Please, my daughter…” She cuts off with a sob when Merle digs the gun into her temple again and she begins to cry openly.

“Daryl!” Merle barks, “I ain’t gonna tell you again.  Grab some shit and let’s go.”

Daryl starts taking a few staggering steps forward.  It will be the subject of much debate in hours to come whether Daryl saw what Negan saw; that is, Morgan sneaking up alongside the far side of the cars that Merle is standing next to.  He has a huge fucking branch in his hand.  At seeing his brother’s compliance, Merle begins to drop his gun hand, while still keeping a death grip on Carol’s neck, and Morgan seizes his chance.  He brings the branch down hard as fuck on Merle’s head.  Merle cries out in pain and that seems to set the whole fucking camp in motion. 

Daryl darts forward and grabs Carol by the arms and throws her down on the ground, falling on top of her.  Later, this will seem like it could have been a protective move, but Negan isn’t seeing it that way right now.  He runs forward to descend on Daryl, while Rick and Shane run forward to deal with Merle, who is bleeding profusely from the head.  He’s screaming and yelling, calling Morgan a fucking nigger and swearing death on him.  Rick manages some super slick handcuffing mojo, getting Merle’s right hand in a cuff and trying to pull it towards his left arm.  Merle is just not feeling it, however, and starts to rear back to try and headbutt Rick’s nose.  Shane is trying to get a good line of sight for his gun without also shooting Rick.

Negan thinks fast and grabs Daryl by the scruff of his shirt, pulling him off Carol.  He tosses Daryl down in Merle’s line of sight and puts his own gun against Daryl's head.

“Hey, fuckwit!  Knock that shit off or I will shoot your baby brother’s brains all over this fucking ground!”  Negan’s not sure if he will do it.  If he even can do it.  But something in Negan’s appearance must convince Merle that he can and will, because he looks stricken for just a second, before he stops fighting.  He slumps to the ground, and Rick helps him along by hitting him over the head again with the butt of his revolver.

*** 

So now, they are all left in what can only be considered a ridiculous fucking tableau.  Rick and Shane have dragged Merle’s unconscious weight over to a tree just outside the edge of the camp.  Rick adjusts the handcuffs so that Merle now has his hands cuffed around a tree.  He won’t be going anywhere once he wakes up. 

“Don’t leave him out there with the Walkers,” Daryl tries to object, but Shane shuts that down.

“Don’t tell us what to do, you son of a bitch.  You’re lucky that both of you are even still alive.”  Daryl looks down at that.

“He’s just an idiot.  He wouldn’t’ve hurt her,” he mumbles, and Shane almost flips out again, but Rick drops down to a knee in order to look Daryl in the eye.

“Daryl, you tell me right now.  How long have you two been planning this?”

“Since a little after we first found you guys.  But, I swear, nobody was going to get hurt.  We was just gonna take the shit in the night and leave.  Don’t know what the hell he was thinking, grabbing her like that.”

“Weren’t going to hurt anyone?  What do you think taking those supplies would have done?  How long you think these kids are gonna last without food?” Rick somehow manages to make his speech equal parts outrage and disappointed scolding.  It reminds Negan of a teacher back at his school, Mr. Tyler, who taught English and had that perfect balance when disciplining his own students.  Negan had always laughed at him and called him a pussy, but secretly he’d been jealous of his ability to be forceful, without being overbearing.  Negan has never been able to stay below ‘overbearing,’ and usually sails right past it to ‘overdoing.’

“Man, I don’t know,” Daryl sulks, guilt clear in his averted eyes.  He might as well be one of those chode kids Negan would catch smoking behind the bleachers, thinking they were awesome as shit, ‘til they got caught.  “We were waiting ‘til there were more supplies, and there was a good opportunity.  Then you and that big motherfucker shows up” (and Negan puffs up a little at being called the big motherfucker, he’s not gonna lie) “and it didn’t seem like a good idea no more.  I didn’t know the big idiot was still thinking about it.”

Rick is silent a long minute before nodding once, which means fuck if Negan knows, and stands up.  He walks a few feet away with Shane, and Negan follows.  Dale and Morgan stand guard over Daryl, who doesn’t seem to have much fight left in him.  Andrea, Amy, Jackie, and Lori are over taking care of Carol, who is slowly regaining her composure.  Ed is notably absent, as T-Dog and Jim keep watch over Merle’s unconscious ass.  The kids are being looked after by the Morales’ further toward the quarry.

Which is good, because they shouldn’t have to hear the conversation that happens next.

***

“What are we talking about here?  Killing him?” Dale interjects about 15 minutes in.

“What do you think we’re talking about here, Dale?” Shane responds.  “That asshole tried to rob us!  Would have hurt Carol!”

“No, he wouldn’t have!” Daryl pleads.

“Be quiet!” Rick yells at him, before lowering his voice and turning back to the matter at hand.  “Dale, what do you suggest we do?”

“Let him go!  Drive him away somewhere else, and just leave him.”

“Dale, Merle knows where our camp is.  Could probably find it again easier than any of us.  He and Daryl know these woods.”

“Besides,” Shane says, dismissively, “Leaving him out there on his own is practically a death sentence, anyway.”

“Practically?” Dale sputters.  “Who are we to decide what is and isn’t a death sentence?  Or who deserves one?”

“Dale,” Shane starts before rolling his eyes and rubbing his head in frustration.

“And what about Daryl?” Dale interjects, loudly.  Daryl’s head perks up along with the others' who have begun to accumulate in their periphery.  “Are we going to kill him, too?  You heard him. None of this was supposed to get violent.  And it didn’t, not really.”

“You gonna go tell that to Carol?  Or Ed?” Negan finally interjects.  Dale sighs.

“Andrea, you used to be a civil rights attorney.  Say something!”  And Negan just wants to punch the geezer for dragging more people into this.

“Dale’s right.  We can’t just start deciding who lives and who dies,” Andrea contributes

“We can when they try and kill us!”  Shane chimes in.

“He didn’t kill anybody!” Dale shouts.

“Look around you, Dale,” Negan shouts.  “How fucking far do you think we’re gonna fucking make it without supplies?  Rick’s right.  We need that food and ammo.  We can’t just let shit like that go because somebody says ‘Sorry!’”

“None of that is worth a man’s life,” Andrea interjects, to which Lori states that she doesn’t want a man like that anywhere around the children, and to that Glenn says that he doesn’t want to kill anybody.  And it just gets the whole fucking conversation rolling again.  It’s only a matter of time before the whole camp is shouting above each other.

“ENOUGH!” Rick shouts, and is surprisingly louder than Negan would have given him credit for.  “We don’t have to settle this right this minute.  Let’s take a little while to cool down.  We’ll discuss it again in a few hours.”  Everyone glares desultorily at each other and wanders in their own separate directions.  Negan passes by Morgan and claps him on the shoulder. 

“Fast thinking, pal.  Good work.  That was a hell of a swing.”

Morgan looks pensive and responds, “I don’t really consider myself a violent man.”

“Uh, forgive me for calling you full of shit, but I seem to remember you threatening to stab Rick and me when we first met.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect it, but still.”

“It’s different, when you have a child.  Isn’t anything you won’t do to keep them safe.  It’s just getting used to the idea that safe doesn’t exist anymore that I’m having trouble with.”  Negan can’t decide if Morgan is subtly digging at him for not having a kid, but that’s crazy, so he just pats Morgan’s shoulder again and walks off.

He walks off toward the edge of camp to get some quiet and sees the tail end of some confrontation between Rick and Shane, ‘cuz Shane storms off, swinging his baseball cap in frustration.  Rick sighs and puts his hands on his hips.

“What’s pulling his pud?” Negan tries to break the tension.

“I have no idea what half the stuff you say even means, you know that, right?” Rick tries to be light.

“You keep telling yourself that.  C’mon.  We’re bros now.  We are braid each other’s hair and share lipstick level BFF’s.”  Rick boggles at him, and Negan laughs.  He will never not love doing this.  “C’mon.  Tell Uncle Negan what’s going on.”

Rick sighs. “It’s Shane.  He’s just…not how I remember him.  I know he’s upset, and I am, too.  But now he’s just…angry.  About everything, and nothing I say can calm him down.  I’m just trying to figure it out.”  Negan wonders if now is the moment to bring up Lori and Shane.  Something tells him it isn’t, so he keeps quiet. 

“I know that Merle is a danger, I do,” Rick continues, “But killing a man in cold blood…  Are we that far gone?  Is there some other way that I’m just not seeing?”

“Way I see it, we have two options: kill him, and feel safe, or let him go, and look over our shoulders forever.  I know which one I prefer.  I think.”

“There’s a third option,” Rick responds. Negan cocks his head in question.

“We leave.  We let him go somewhere far enough away, and we just leave.  Find somewhere else to go.  Someplace more secure.”

“Rick…” Negan is already shaking his head.  Why the fuck do they have to leave because of one dickbag fuck?  He’s prevented from protesting further by the timely arrival of Lori.  She comes over and wraps her arms around Rick’s side.  In all the excitement and fallout, she hasn’t gotten the chance to welcome him back to the camp and reassure herself that he’s alright.  They’re sweet, and Negan actually likes standing next to them and watching from the outside.  He and Lucille had hated their neighbors, and Lucille hadn’t liked him getting too friendly with their married couple friends’ wives.  Which was pretty fucking on-point of her, really.  But, this is nice. 

Which is of course when Shane comes back.  He’s in the middle of telling them about dinner, when he sees this picture: the woman he’s been fucking with her true husband (and shooting him death glares from where Rick can’t see) and Rick’s new best buddy.  Negan is familiar enough with wanting what he can’t have to recognize it in Shane, now. 

“You comin’, or what?” Shane grumbles.  Rick tenses up again, and they all head to the campfire.

*** 

Nobody can decide what to do about Merle and the tension makes things fucking awkward around camp, even when they aren't talking about Merle, or shooting distrustful looks at Daryl.  Shane is bitching about going to Fort Benning for help, and Negan wants to tell him to shut the fuck up about it, because there is no help coming.  Now or ever.  Rick wants to go to Atlanta to the CDC and, holy fuck, what the fuck for?  If there were a cure, they would know of it by now. 

Other matters come to a head long before the choice gets made.  To the fucking point, Ed Cocksucking Peletier is smacking his wife around.  Now, Negan’s only good thing going for him is that he won’t stand for the abuse of women and, that night, after nights of listening to that prick bark orders at his shivering slip of a wife and daughter, Negan loses it.  Just fucking loses it.  Beats the shit out of him while his wife whimpers in the background. 

He is eventually pulled off of Ed by Rick, who was down by the quarry or something.  Negan shakes Rick’s hold off, but throws his hands up in surrender, signaling that he’s made his point and is done.  Carol, who apparently hasn’t had it hard enough today, runs over to her black and blue husband, who immediately calls her a cunt and throws her off.  Negan looks over his shoulder and is surprised to see Shane there, looking at him.  Negan now remembers that Shane had been standing in that same place, next to him, when the fight started.  He could have pulled Negan off of Ed at any time before Rick showed up.

But he didn’t.

For the first time, he and Shane seem to understand each other.  Shane’s been itching to do the same for much longer than Negan has, Negan would bet money.  Because Shane gets it.  Gets it in a way Rick won’t.  Not for a while yet.  That men like Ed were wastes of space in the old world.  And they sure as shit don’t deserve to be in this new one.  Shane treats Negan’s beating of Ed like an unfortunate, temporary necessity to keep order in line until the old order reasserts itself.  It is a small, enjoyed sin that Shane thinks he will live long enough to regret.  Negan knows the opposite; they aren’t working to preserve the old order. Now is the time to make a new order.  And if that new order means beating the shit out of wife-beaters and general dead weight, then who the fuck is going to complain about it? 

Well, Rick, probably.

Shane gives Negan a slow, single nod as the camp tries to compose itself again and pretend like what just happened didn’t happen.  They seem to be on the same page for the time being; they’re willing to take on this new world to keep order and do the hard things Rick can’t.

(Later, Rick will shoot a little girl in the fucking face, because nobody else will have the balls.  He will face that little girl’s mother, day after day, with that moment hanging between them, forever.  Beating the shit out of Ed will feel petty and stupid in comparison.)

***

The next day dawns, and there is still no decision made about Merle.  Dale aggressively approaches Rick about it, once again starting an argument with Shane, who has made himself like dried jizz on a stomach to Rick and been his constant shadow all morning.

In the end, they’re spared from having to make that hard decision when, in the middle of the next night, Walkers attack their camp.  Ed gets it first, while he’s nursing his wounds in his tent.  Nobody mourns him much.  More troubling is the fact that, in the confusion, Merle has escaped.

“Jesus, is that blood?” Shane asks, as they all stare at Rick’s left behind handcuffs. 

“Yeah, he must have cut the hell out of his wrists and used the blood to slip out.  Broken his own thumb, maybe, to fit.”

“Or, was eaten,” Shane counters.

“Fuck,” Negan adds, because Jesus what else can be said? 

“Did you help him?!” Shane reels on Daryl.

“No, man.  Your friends were watching me all night, you know that,” Daryl protests.  He sounds defensive but beneath that is obvious worry and hurt.  Rick inadvertently rubs salt in the wound by breaking in.

“If Merle had help from Daryl, do you think Daryl would still be here?  Let’s just let this be.  We have to focus on what we can.  His motorcycle is still here, so he couldn’t have gotten far.  We have to sort out what happened last night and then think about leaving before he can come back.  There were more of those Walkers last night than there has been.  It isn’t safe to stay here anymore, for any reason.”

Sorting out “what happened last night” means dealing with the fact that Amy is dead, and Jim has been bitten.  These are two crises that require immediate action, but nobody has any solution.  Jim is confined to the RV with Jackie nursing over him as fever begins to set in.  It feels like standing next to a ticking time bomb.  Even more problematic, Andrea will not leave Amy’s side.  Everyone gives them a wide berth in what is originally meant as a moment to pay respects.  But the moment stretches out into hours, and the camp starts getting really fucking nervous. 

“She still over there?” Negan asks Lori, who has been unofficially monitoring the situation from afar.  She attempted to speak with Andrea earlier, but was met with hostility. 

“She won’t move,” Lori says, concern and frustration in her voice as she tells Carl to go show Duane the frogs in the quarry.  “She’s been there for a couple of hours now, and we have no idea when Amy will come back.  And with Jim likely to turn soon…”

“Shit.”

“You said it,” she says, attempting to be light.  “Dale’s tried talking to her, I’ve tried talking to her.  Her closest friend besides us was Amy.  I feel bad; I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”

“Well, you’ll know soon enough, if we don’t get rid of Amy before she turns.”  Lori looks deadly serious at that.  Out of nowhere, Shane appears.  Shane whistles at Negan, sly, and jerks his head toward Andrea.  Negan looks around.  Rick has gone with Dale and T-Dog toward the road, to see if there’s any sign of Merle or, barring that, more Walkers making their way toward the camp.  Negan sees what Shane’s plan is.

Part of Negan is pissed; he’ll never respect a man who waits until his opponent is gone to make his move.  On the other hand, Negan has had enough.  Negan has allowed himself to mistake camaraderie with safety and that was a stupid mistake.  They’re safer in numbers, true.  But “safer” isn’t enough.  Morgan is right; there is no such thing as safety, anymore.  It’s a mistake he won’t make again.

When Andrea, dazed and grief-stricken, pulls a gun on Shane to get him to back off, Negan comes from her blindspot.  She starts to turn the gun on Negan, but it means taking her eyes off Shane, who simply grabs her wrist, and disarms her.  By then, Negan has pulled out his own handgun and shot Amy in the skull.

“No!” Andrea’s angry, helpless wail fills the canyon, and Negan knows it will bring Dale and Rick running back.  She stand up and starts throwing punches at Negan, calling him a fucker and a cocksucker and every other word in the book.  He takes it, and even a few of her punches, to boot, it being a shitty day for her and all.  Shane pulls her off of Negan and restrains her 'til she eventually tires herself out.  Not enough to keep her from shooting fucking ice-cold death rays at him through her eyes, but at least she’s out of the fucking way and they can feel relieved that they’ve dealt with one-third of their immediate problems.

***

Negan is taking down Jim’s tent, since Jim is too sick to do it, when he sees Carol approach Daryl, who has been sitting propped up next to a tree, brooding.  This seems like a bad idea for many reasons, but Negan chooses to just keep an eye on it as he tries to figure out this fucking tent.  He wants to just rip the whole thing out of the ground, stakes and all, and just fucking roll it into a ball.  That should work good enough, right?

“I’m sorry about your brother,” Negan hears Carol say and he’s surprised, a little.  But only a little.  A woman who keeps going back to take her licks from a jizzstain like Ed must have a pretty forgiving, if misguided, disposition.  Daryl scoffs at her condolences, like a dick, but Carol continues.

“I believe you.  I don’t think he would have hurt me, after all.”  Daryl looks at her in gratitude for believing him, and Jesus those two have some seriously fucked up issues.  “But, it’s time we both moved on.  If Merle made it,” and Daryl closes his eyes at the idea of the opposite being true, “Then he left you behind to keep you safe.  I think he could sense your heart wasn’t in it.  And maybe he knows that you’ll be fine without him.”  Negan thinks Carol is crazy, but shit, if it’s what Daryl wants to hear, then by all means, preach it, honey. 

Later, while Negan’s taking a piss, he hears Rick talking with Daryl.  Daryl has managed to stir himself from his brood enough to start packing up some of the tents under the blistering gaze of Shane and Morgan.

“I was lucky enough to get a second chance.  This is your second chance.”

“Man, I don’t need anything from you,” Daryl protests.

“Yes.” Rick interrupts, deadly serious.  “You do.  You think you can find your brother out there and that he’s gonna take care of you and you two will get by on your own, then go ahead.  Be my guest.  But don’t ever come back to us if you do.”

It’s a long, awkward silence and Negan regrets that he’s been relegated to unseen observer with his leaking dick in his hand.  It’s a little less than dignified, ya know?

“He’s my brother…” Daryl trails off.

“You don’t need to worry about your brother, right now; you need to worry about gaining my trust.  Your brother made his choices.  Why don’t you stop worrying about him, and worry about people that can actually use your help.  You’re a good hunter and tracker.  We would hate to lose you.”

Maybe Daryl nods or something, or somehow gives Rick some other non-verbal response, because the conversation just stops and Negan has to wait a twenty-count before he can tuck himself away and come out.  By then, everyone has gotten back to work.

***

They pack up quickly, while Rick and Shane argue back and forth about where to go.  Shane still wants to go north toward Fort Benning, and they all decide that they will head out before Merle gets the opportunity to attack again.  Or the Walkers, for that matter.  The Morales’ are heartened to hear that there were some survivors still alive in Atlanta, and so decide to take a risk and go their separate ways to Alabama to find her family. 

Jim’s condition worsens in the RV as they go and he asks to be left behind.  There is some deep-rooted instinct in Negan that doesn’t agree with the idea of leaving a man by the side of the road to die.  But it’s either that or watch him die anyway, and then have to put him down like Amy.  Rick tries to brush it off as Jim being feverish, but Jim is insistent.

And so, several miles down the highway, in the opposite direction of Atlanta, they pull over and find the most comfortable spot they can, as far from the Walkers as possible.  They lay Jim back against a tree and, as his face glows with fever, Jim smiles.  “The breeze feels good.”

“It doesn’t feel right, just leaving him here alone,” Glenn whispers to Rick, who can do nothing but shrug.

“He won’t be alone,” Jackie announces abruptly.

“What are you saying?” Rick asks, wary, but he has already guessed.

“I’m saying I’m done.  This is where my road ends.  I don’t have it in me to keep going.  It’s time that I made my own choices.”  There are some shocked protestations, but Rick remains silent, and Jackie continues smiling indulgently.  She will not be moved. 

“I’ll stay with Jim ‘til the end, then I’ll…well, I’ll figure myself out.  Nobody should die alone.”  And so, they line up and each say their goodbyes to Jim, who is panting heavily now, and Jackie, who is crouched next to him, holding his hand tightly. 

Negan ends up being second to last, before Rick, and you would think he would have thought of something better to say in all that time he had to prepare.  Instead, the best he can say is “Thanks for the tent” and when Jim chuckles a bit, Negan leans forward closer and whispers, “I hope you find your family.” 

Jim finally smiles and says, “We’ll be together, one way or another.”  Negan turns to Jackie, who has settled in and made herself comfortable.  For the last time, Negan realizes. 

“Jackie, you are one amazing broad.  I’m sorry we never got the chance to sleep together.”  She laughs and winks at him.

“Me too, slugger.”  Negan smiles and leans in to give her a quick smack on the lips.  He walks away, to head back to the road and the waiting cars.  As he leaves, he turns his head back to see Rick whispering something to both Jim and Jackie.  Rick quietly tucks a small revolver into Jackie’s hand, before resting a hand on her shoulder.  He turns away, and Negan continues walking, to make it look like he wasn’t eavesdropping.

They make it back to the road in silence.  Andrea glares at Negan once more for good measure before climbing into the RV with Dale and Glenn.  So, he will obviously not be traveling in there.  Daryl hops onto his brother’s motorcycle.  Shane drives another, smaller car, with T-Dog, Morgan, and Duane piled in alongside him.  Negan is left to squeeze in with Rick, Lori, Carl, Carol, and Sophia.  It’s cramped, but Negan’s not complaining. 

In silence, all the cars are put into gear, and they begin a sad, slow funeral procession down the road.

They have gone from 23 to 14.

Chapter Text

Negan dozes off in the car, careful to lean against the window and not inwards, where he would just end up crushing the kids.  Weirdly, he dreams of Donna.  Nothing sexual, thank fuck.  Just one of those dreams where someone from your normal life makes an appearance out of context.  In this one, she’s a ticket-taker at a carnival ride that he’s getting on with Lucille.  There is no awkwardness or hidden, guilty glances.  He wakes up, and forgets where he is for a minute. 

He wonders whatever happened to Donna.  She is (was?) one of the admins at his school. They had spent months circling around each other at staff meetings and assemblies, making filthier and filthier jokes when they thought nobody was looking before finally finding time to fuck in one of the gym closets.  She hadn’t been anything to write home about looks-wise, and, if he’s honest, not fucking-wise, either.  But after that first taste of forbidden fruit, he’d felt like a god damn king. Fuck you, smart ass parents with your snotty jizz-leaking punk kids, looking down at him for being just some nobody gym coach.  He was a fucking sex GOD. 

Looking back on it, it actually makes him feel even more pathetic.  He’d thought he was so fucking slick.  Donna, too.  How many people had known about it, and made vulgar jokes with Negan and Donna at the butt of them?  He would have made them; he knows others must have.  He hopes they’d had the decency to leave Lucille out of them.  But he doubts it.  And that’s just one more thing to feel shitty about.  He hopes Donna found somebody after she gave him the fucking heave-ho.  He hopes that guy is taking care of her, now.

He blames his dream and his subsequent thoughts for his teary-ass mood.  When Rick and Lori start talking about their aborted trip to the Grand Canyon and, upon the kids asking if Sophia and Carol can come on their next trip, Rick responds: “We’d never go without you and your mom.  That’s a promise.”  The vow turns something in Negan, and he can feel his eyes misting a bit before looking out the window.

(He won’t know it for a long time, but that was the start of everything.)

*** 

They drive further down the road before being stopped by a massive pile-up of cars on the freeway.  It was only a matter of time.  Of course, the piece of shit RV decides to blow something right then, too.  So now they are sitting on the highway with their dicks in the wind.  Everyone gets out of their cars and stretches their legs for a bit, and it actually feels good, despite being Chapter Seventy Whatever the Fuck in their ongoing debate about where to go. 

Before, the most important thing had been getting out of that area before Merle or more Walkers came back.  They’d discussed going to Atlanta to try the CDC, but Negan had fought vigorously against that.

“You saw Atlanta, Rick.  It’s a fucking wasteland.”

“There were still survivors.”

“Barely.  And don’t you think if the CDC were there, then FEMA or some shit would have made some safe spaces?”

“But there might be a cure.  Or some idea of what’s causing this.”

“What’s the point?  We know how it’s spread.  Through bites.  We need to get to a place where we can keep these Walkers out and defend ourselves,” Shane interjects.

”My wife wasn’t bitten.  And she came back,” Negan argues, and if he had known that saying that would bring every conversation to a depressing halt, he might have found a better way to say it.

“Then that means, whatever this is that's happening, it will happen to all of us,” Rick says, and that had really blue-balled the mood at camp.

And so, now, by the side of the road, they have at least ruled out going back into Atlanta and the CDC, for which Negan is grateful.  Shane wants to go to Fort Benning still, but Rick and Negan are less sure about that.  Negan knows that everything on the Eastern seaboard was fucking falling apart when he was evacuated to Cynthiana as a last ditch survival effort.  Fort Benning will be no different. 

“If everyone that dies turns into Walkers, then we need to go to a place that’s sparsely populated,” Rick argues.  “But Winter will be coming soon, and we can’t be caught running.  We’ll need a place with real walls and protection.”

“But when they fix things, they’ll be going to the cities first,” Shane counter-argues. 

“Nobody is fucking fixing anything!” Negan counter-argues to that, and they’re about to do the whole thing over again, before Dale pipes in.

“If we don’t get this RV going, or these cars out of the way, none of us will be going anywhere,” Dale says, wintry.  They all see it for the truth it is and decide to call off the talk until the RV gets fixed.  Lori and Carol are going through the cars stopped on the road, scavenging for things they can use.  They don’t look thrilled about it, but they don’t whine, either.  Glenn and T-Dog help Dale with the RV, while Rick and Shane post up at either ends of the highway to keep an eye out.  Negan’s back has been killing him, and he bitterly regrets that the apocalypse waited til he was on the wrong side of forty to kick in. 

He steps onto the grass median and starts giving Lucille some serious hardcore swings, both to stretch his back and to maintain some strength.  When he looks up, Duane, Carl, and Sophia are watching him.

“Cool bat,” Carl says.  “Mickey Donovan back home had one like it.”  Negan decides not to bring up the fact that the bat might very well have been Mickey Donovan’s. 

“Her name’s Lucille.”

“Why does your bat have a girl’s name?” Sophia asks.  Negan’s about to answer, when Lori chimes in, amused.

“I’ve found that it’s never a good idea to ask a man why he names anything after a girl, Sophia.”  Negan smiles winsomely at her.

“You hurt my feelings, Lori.  For all you know, it’s named after my wonderful, old mother.”

“Somehow, I doubt that,” she responds, raising an amused eyebrow.

It’s right then that Rick starts running through the cars, gesturing wildly, but silently, to find cover under the cars.

Another herd of Walkers is coming through.

***

It’s even bigger than the one Rick and Negan saw on the freeway to Atlanta.  Jesus, where are they all coming from?  And where the fuck do they think they are all going?  Everyone scurries and huddles under cars as best they can.  Negan grabs Duane and Carl and practically carries them over to one car before shoving them under.  He tries to grab Sophia, too, but she starts to run toward her mother at the first sign from Rick, before realizing she won’t make it in time.  She hides herself under a car, too, but it’s useless.

A Walker finds her and chases her into the woods.  Negan pulls himself out from under the car to follow.

“Mr. Negan!” Duane whisper-shouts at him. He turns back to the boys.

“Stay here and wait for your dads.  They’re fine, and you will be too.”  Negan’s not sure why he makes such an empty promise, especially since he turns around to follow Rick, who has also gone into the woods after her, only to be confronted with one of the Walkers.  He brings Lucille down on its head, and it falls, but another one is right behind that one.  Before Negan can swing again, the Walker’s head seems to burst from within, and it is gross as shit, until he realizes it is Daryl, who snuck up behind the thing to stab it through the skull.  Daryl stares at Negan for a second, and Negan’s not sure if he’s supposed to do that cool ‘back at ya, bro’ nod with him, but he doesn’t feel like it, yet.  Daryl’s still got a long way to go before he’s earned Negan’s trust.   

Daryl turns to help T-Dog, who seems to be injured, and Negan only has a second to hope it isn’t a bite wound before he has to help Morgan, who is fighting off two more. 

By the time everything is over and heads counted, Rick has returned from the woods.

Sophia cannot be found.

***

Carol is beside herself and nothing Rick says can calm her down.  It doesn’t help that he and Daryl decided to fucking split one of the Walkers they found open and are covered in…ugh, whatever’s left of these Walkers when he tells her that Sophia is no longer where he left her.  She’s angry: at Rick for leaving Sophia in the woods; at Negan for not grabbing Sophia when he grabbed Carl and Duane; at everyone as a whole for not having any fucking clue what to do.  Rick tries to comfort her, the entire time looking fucking gutted.  She’s upset, but it’s a weary, desperate anger and they all just bear the brunt of it. 

Darkness falls, and the entire night they lay there in their cars thinking about Sophia.  Or at least, Negan does.  The next morning, Rick organizes a plan for all of them except for Dale and T-Dog to start searching the woods.  As they’re gearing up to go, some more unpleasantness comes to light.  Andrea starts bitching at Dale to give her a gun, a request which is immediately shut down.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Andrea,” Dale says.  “After all that talk you were making the other night about Jim and Jackie, I’m worried about you.”

“Worried about me?” Andrea says, outraged as a nun in a whorehouse.  It becomes clear to the preparing crowd, who have now decided to stand around awkwardly and stare at their feet, that Andrea has been contemplating suicide.  And, shit, what can be said to that?  "So what if I was, Dale?  It was just talking.  And even if it wasn't just talk, who are you to stop me?  It's my choice."  Dale hesitates more and she explodes.  "What do you think's gonna happen if you give me a gun, Dale?  I'm gonna stick it in my mouth and pull the trigger?  Do you think if I really wanted to end it, you could find a way to stop me?"  She goes on for a bit, and Shane tries to de-escalate the situation.

“I think it’s best that nobody ‘sides me and Rick and Dale have guns right now.  We can’t afford the noise attracting ‘em Walkers.  Or us shooting each other.”  Shane finishes pointedly, and it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten Andrea’s temper tantrum a few days ago, when she’d pulled a gun on him for trying to get rid of Amy.  Negan certainly hasn’t.

“Really?” she says, unimpressed.  “So, we just have to…what?  Depend on you for survival while we're tramping through these woods?”

“You’re welcome to stay here, if you want, Andrea,” Dale chimes in.  “Maybe take some time to rest.  I just hate the idea of losing you,” he says at her unimpressed face.

"Losing me?  I’m not your wife, Dale.  I'm not your daughter, and I’m certainly not your problem.”  And, damn.  Dale’s ability to butt himself into everything is irritating as shit, but that’s a low blow.  Especially from a woman who is, for all intents and purposes, alone now.  And Negan feels pissed off on Dale’s behalf; as if, now especially, caring were some commodity that one can afford to toss aside.

***

They search the woods for hours, with so many false alarms and dashed hopes as they find tents and abandoned churches, all of them filled with corpses and Walkers.  Each discovery leads to yet more disappointment, yet more sadness on Carol's face.  It also leads to am unspoken question simmering under every whispered command, echoing in every long silence.

How long are we going to do this?

They all know how easy it is for an adult to get overrun in this shitty world.  How long can a child possibly last?  How long can they last, if they stay out here?  But nobody wants to be the one to say it, and so they just keep beating bushes and sweating like crazy in the Georgia air as they wander around in what Negan hopes isn't circles.  They're following Daryl, and Negan doesn't like that one bit, but what the hell else can they do?  He sees Carol looking at him on occasion, and he wants to tell her that it's nothing personal.  He would have grabbed Sophia as quickly as he'd grabbed Carl and Duane, if he could have.  She no longer seems angry, though.  Just sad.  And so he says nothing.  He feels an uncomfortable protectiveness of Rick, though.  Carol seems upset with Rick, still, and it isn't his fault either.  Negan wants to tell her that everything's going to be fine, because Rick is there.  Didn't she see the miracle that happened not two weeks earlier?  Didn't she see a family that had no right finding each other, fucking find each other?  She's been staying in the camp, so she hasn't seen all the shit that Rick's been able to do when they were on the road and in Atlanta.  She doesn't have faith.  And Negan doesn't have any business having any, either, to be honest.  But shit.  What the fuck else can they do?

As they take a rest by the church, Negan stumbles upon an uncomfortable conversation between Shane and Andrea.  Shane wants to leave (and three fucking guesses as to why) but, surprise, surprise, Andrea wants to go with him.  They want to take a car and some supplies and go off into the fucking sunset together, and Negan doesn't know what the fuck they hope to accomplish with that, but over his dead body will he let them take their supplies with them over some fucking broken heart bullshit.

They continue on, with Rick and Shane going off with Carl in one direction, and the rest of them splitting off to keep looking.  Surprisingly, it's Daryl who seems the most optimistic about finding Sophia out of any of them.  At first, Negan thinks it's just Daryl pretending that there is hope in continuing looking in a bid to make himself useful and, therefore not expendable.  Daryl tells them some story about how he got lost for nine days in the woods and survived off of berries or some shit, and Jesus Christ, looking at Daryl, Negan can't even be surprised hearing that.  

After a while, Negan and Andrea end up drifting on the periphary, and he eases his bat on his shoulder as he walks alongside her.  He affects a bit of a saunter that he used to like to do when he would approach Lucille when he wanted something.  She would always level an affectionately suspicious glance at him and her antennae would go up.  "What are you wanting?" she would laugh.

But Lucille's dead now, and for all Andrea knows this is his natural gait.  "Andrea, I think we should talk for a minute."

"Oh?"  She is not impressed.

"I couldn't help but overhear earlier."

"Yeah, it's definitely a day for that," she says. 

"It sounded like you and Shane were thinking of leaving."

She rolls her eyes.  "And so what if we were, Negan?" she says, stopping and turning to face him.  He stops, as well.  She rubs him the wrong way, but he can at least respect that she gets straight to the point.

"I think it would be a bad idea.  We need Shane, and, whether you like to believe it or not, we need you.  And for you to just run off because you got your feelings hurt, hurts us."

"What the hell do you know?" She responds.  And shit, it sounds like Negan's going to have to work on the 'being reasonable and agreeable' voice that Rick does so well, 'cuz Andrea ain't having it.

"I know you're upset.  About Amy.  About everything.  But we all are."

"Don't talk to me about Amy.  I had that situation under control.  I was going to say goodbye to her and I was going to let her go myself.  How dare you interfere with that?"

"You waiting for her to come back was putting us all in danger.  We all saw it.  You're the only who didn't."

"What, like wandering around in the woods looking for a dead little girl isn't also putting us all in danger?" she shoots back, and it takes him a full five count to tamp down his anger.

"Trust me, killing Amy yourself wouldn't have changed anything.  She'd still be dead, and you'd just feel like shit.  I was doing you, and the whole camp, a favor.  And dying yourself isn't going to change that."

"You know what, Negan?  From now now, you can keep your 'favors' to yourself."  And with that she storms off, and Negan chalks that one up as a draw.

***

He debates trying again later, but they hear a single gunshot in the distance.  It makes them even more nervous.  They continue on, but the mood is heavy.  They're all wondering what that single gunshot means.  They find out what it means not too much later, when a woman rides out of the forest on a horse out of fucking nowhere and knocks a Walker straight on its ass.  

Carl has been shot.

***

By the time Negan, Glenn, and T-Dog get to the farmhouse that the girl, Maggie, directed them to, Carl is no longer bleeding, but is on death’s door, regardless.  Rick is pale and feverish with his own blood loss, and Shane is nowhere to be found.

“What the fuck is going on?” he accosts an older man, who appears to be the only useful person at the moment.

“The boy is stable, but we needed certain supplies.  The other man, Shane, and Otis have gone to the FEMA shelter at the high school to get them.  But they should have been back by now.”

Fucking seriously?  Where the fuck are they and...wait, Otis?  Seriously?  He knows he’s in Georgia and all that, but damn.

“When should they have been back?”

“It's only but 5 miles away.  But the shelter was overrun a while back.  We were hoping it had cleared up some.  They must have run into trouble.”  Shit.  This is the last thing they need.

“Do you have a map?  Or can you describe how to get there?”

“Negan, what?” Lori asks, distraught.

“I’ll take the car and go get them.  Maybe their car broke down or something.”  It’s almost irresponsibly optimistic to think that, but he can hope.

“I’ll go with you,” Glenn starts, but Negan stops him.

“No, we need everyone here looking out for each other.” Negan casts a distrusting glance to the farmer and his unsmiling brood.  Glenn stiffens a little in realization, but thankfully doesn’t argue.  With T-Dog injured, Rick delirious with blood loss, and the others still at the road looking for Sophia, they’re vulnerable.  These people don't look dangerous, but Negan hasn't forgotten Merle's betrayal.  “Besides,” Negan continues, ”If it isn’t car trouble, maybe it’s best that we don’t keep sending out more to be lost.”

Hershel (it turns out is his name, and…really, Georgia?  Seriously?) provides him with a map and directions, and Negan climbs into the car.  As he flips a bitch to head out, he catches sight of a pale Rick sitting on the porch, distraught.  Lori is holding on to him.   

Good fucking job, Negan.

***

It takes him a while to find the high school due to it being in the middle of buttfuck nowhere, and there being no lighting or real signs.  He does find it, however, and just in fucking time, too.  Shane and this Otis guy owe him, like, fifty million dollars, or whatever the fuck they’re going to be using as currency in this new world, because there is a fucking storm of walkers chasing them out of the school grounds.  They’re bogged down with supplies and, in Otis’ case, fat, and moving slow.  It’s then that Negan sees it.

Shane turns to Otis, who is one fat fuck, and says something to make Otis give him the supplies.  Otis tosses them over, and Negan sees Shane lift his gun.  Oh, so subtly.  But it’s there, and Negan knows exactly what Shane’s going to do, and shit. 

Negan blares the horn as loud as he can, and it startles Shane enough into looking up.  Otis turns his head toward the noise, conveniently turning his head away from Shane, and from seeing the death that was surely to come from that direction.  Otis, the oblivious bastard, starts waving his arms in happiness, trying to signal Negan to their location, as if Negan had just been driving around blaring his horn in the darkness like a goddamn idiot for fun.  Negan is driving perpendicular to them, and uses the opportunity to plow into the Walkers closest to the pair.  The distraction and the newly made clearance gives Shane and Otis enough time to make it to their truck and climb in.

Once Negan sees they’re clear, he flips off the nearest Walker before running right the fuck over it, and follows them out.  The windshield is cracked to shit, and he’s sure he hears the front bumper scraping on the pavement, but the car is mobile, and that’s all he gives a shit about.

It’s a long drive back to the farm as he follows their taillights.  He knows what he saw.  And he has a lot to think about.

Rick is exhausted and punch drunk when they return and, as Hershel sets in to do whatever operation he’s trying to do, he is weepy grateful as he and Shane hug.  Shane, for his part, is equally moved and starts man-crying, too.

Rick turns to Otis.  “Thank you so much,” he says, even though all of this is kind of Otis’s fault, apparently.

“It was the least I could do.  Sorry we ran into more trouble than I thought.  We almost didn’t make it.  Your friend here showed up just in time.”  Otis has no idea how true that statement is.  Negan thankfully doesn’t have to think about it too much, as Rick turns his shining face to Negan and full on man-hugs him. 

“Man, Rick, when I was planning our sweet, sweet honeymoon, I didn’t realize you were gonna be such a snuggler,” he wisecracks, but squeezes tighter.  Rick reaches out and awkwardly grabs Shane, too, and it’s a weird little group hug.  More so, knowing what Negan now knows about Shane.

But for right now, it’s alright.  Carl is getting the help he needs and is going to live.  T-Dog’s arm is apparently salvageable.  Everyone is alive. 

They’re fine.

**

Chapter Text

Of course, ‘fine’ is a relative condition. 

Sophia is still missing.  Carl is bedridden until they can be sure that Hershel’s surgery has been successful.  T-Dog’s arm is recovering from severe infection.  And, yeah, the world is still fucking covered with the walking dead.

The next morning, a billow of dust from the road alerts Negan and Glenn that cars are coming up the backroad to Hershel’s property.  Dale has apparently gotten the RV working again, and Shane’s car is being driven by Morgan, while Daryl brings up the rear on his motorcycle, making all sorts of goddamn noise.  Carol’s gonna be pissed when she sees what Negan’s done to her Cherokee.  He managed to get it back to the farm last night, but he couldn’t get it started again this morning, and he doesn’t know shit about fixing cars.  It’s one less car they’ll have, if they need to hit the road.

Slow, heavy footsteps echo on the porch behind Negan.  It’s Hershel.

“I presume all these cars pulling into my driveway are the rest of your people?”  He doesn’t sound pleased about it, but he’s not kicking them off either.  So they’ll just have to work with that.

Hershel allows them to set up a camp right outside the house.  Hershel’s daughters, Maggie and Beth, watch them warily, while Beth’s walking zit of a boyfriend Jimmy tries to be useful.  He’s a fumbler, though, and Negan wonders just how the fuck those two manage to have sex, he’s so clumsy.

Negan was up all night rescuing Shane and Otis, and then sitting up with Rick and Lori and the rest while Hershel, Patricia, and Otis worked on Carl.  He’s fucking spent, and he’s barely awake as he watches everyone unload. 

“Duane, why don’t you show Mr. Negan how good you’re getting at setting up tents, boy?” Morgan calls to Duane, who immediately jumps to start setting up Negan’s tent for him. Negan laughs at Morgan, who covertly gives him a wink.  It’s the first time Negan’s seen the man smile, meager as the effort is.  Once the tent’s set up, Negan saunters over and pretends to evaluate it with a critical eye, before fist-bumping Duane just out of his reach, so the boy has to jump to get it.  Negan immediately crawls inside to take a nap.

Before he closes his eyes, he counts.  With Hershel, Maggie, Beth, Jimmy, Patricia, and Otis, they are back up to twenty.

Nineteen. Andrea’s voice says, in his mind.

No.  Rick says.  Still twenty.

***

When he comes out of his tent, he sees Daryl coming back from…somewhere.  Negan thinks he’s dreaming again, because Daryl is carrying a flower.  It’s pretty, and out of place in Daryl’s grubby mitt.  He’s surprised to see Daryl take it into the RV, but he doesn’t pay it much mind.  He later goes into the RV to tell Carol about wrecking her car.  He sees the rose in a make-shift vase and, when he asks Carol after it, she vaguely responds that Daryl brought it for Sophia.  He wants to hate Daryl more for taking advantage of a woman's pain in order to ingratiate himself, but Carol looks uplifted, and it's Daryl who is out looking, after all.  He apologizes about her car, and she smiles as best she can before kissing him on the cheek.

Over the next few days, they all wait with bated breath to see how Carl recovers.  Thankfully, he wakes up, groggy and in pain, but alive.  They take turns visiting him, careful not to overwhelm him.

“’Sup, shortstack?” Negan says, playfully pretending like he’s going to ruffle Car’s hair, before pulling back at the last second.

“Hey, Mr. Negan,” Carl responds.  Something in Negan relaxes to see him alert and aware.  It had seemed so cruel, to survive the ending of the world, just to be killed by a fellow human.  Lori is perched on the bed beside Carl, with Rick sitting in a chair on the other side.  He still looks haggard and pale, but relief has energized him.  His simple contentment makes him…glow, for lack of a better word.  It’s a thought that takes Negan by surprise, so he instead turns his focus onto Carl.

“You gave your parents a scare, dude.”

“Yeah.  They say I’m gonna have a scar, like my Dad’s.”  Rick looks uncomfortable for a long minute, and Negan doesn’t even know what to say to that for a minute.

“Don’t knock it, kid.  Chicks totally dig scars.  It gets ‘em…” Lori levels him with a warning look and he changes track at the last second “Feeling sorry for you.  Still, I don’t think your Dad can handle anything like that again…your mom, maybe.”

“Thanks, Negan,” Lori laughs, exasperated.

“What about Sophia?  Is she ok?” Carl asks.  And Negan doesn’t know what to say to that, either, so he looks at Rick.  Rick calms Carl with a gentle lie, and Negan can only hope that they find Sophia before Carl gets more aware of what’s going on, so that they aren’t both proven liars.

Negan suspects Rick is hoping the same thing.

***

While Carl was recovering, and the rest of the group was setting up camp on Hershel’s front lawn, Daryl had been the only one out looking for Sophia.  Now that Carl is out of danger, Rick applies himself to the task again.  They’re all lined up outside, facing the porch where Rick and Hershel are standing.

“Alright, now we’ve had a chance to rest and get organized, we can start spreading out and doing a more thorough search for Sophia.  We’ll all go back to the highway and try and pick up her trail again.  Andrea, T-Dog, and Dale, you’ll head North from where she was last seen; Glenn and Maggie are going to go West and run into the nearby town and grab some supplies, and see if she ended up there.  Daryl, Carol, and I will go East.  Hershel says there’s a few farms further North.  It’s a stretch for a little girl to make, but it’s possible.  Negan and Shane, take the truck and follow Otis’s instructions to get there and check them out.  If she’s not there, at least we’ll know she’s somewhere in between.”  Rick nods and makes it so, and they all start to go to the cars to head back to the highway.

Negan looks over at Shane, who’s looking serious as fuck and does a wary nod at Negan.

Thanks a fucking lot, Rick.

***

Negan didn’t realize it until they get stuck together, but he’s been actively avoiding Shane.  It isn’t that he’s angry at Shane for planning to kill Otis in the heat of the moment.  Not really, anyway.  He gets it: Shane didn’t know Otis; Carl’s survival was at stake.  The needs of the ones you love over the needs of a stranger.  It’s the new math around here.  Maybe Negan would have done the same thing.  Maybe Negan will have to do the same thing.  It’s an uncomfortable thought, and looking at Shane is a constant fucking uncomfortable reminder.  And then there’s the fact that, while Otis was a total stranger that night, Negan is currently not all that much more of a friend to Shane.  When shit hits the fucking fan, Negan suspects he will be left covered in it, if all he has is Shane around.  Negan fidgets his fingers and taps along the car windowsill in the time of a song he barely remembers.

“Listen,” Shane starts, and oh shit, he knows that Negan knows.  But that’s stupid. “I just wanna say, I’m glad you came along.”

“Sure.  Good to have a second set of eyes.” 

“No, I mean, came along when you did.  With Rick, I mean.  I wasn’t too sure at first.  More mouths to feed, all that.  But, you’ve been so good at helping us out.  Helping Rick out.  I’m glad you’re here.  When the hospital fell, all of Rick’s machines turned off and I thought…I thought he was dead.  It was the worst choice I ever made, leaving him behind.”

And Jesus, Negan almost bites his own tongue off to avoid reminding Shane about the other  worst choices Shane has made.  And only the ones Negan knows of.

“If I’d known he would live and just…wake up, I would have carried him out on my shoulders.”  And Negan actually does believe that.  He’s seen what Shane’s done, and how he looks at Rick and Rick’s family.  It’s not all jealousy and selfishness.  “I’m just so grateful that you found him and got him to Atlanta so we could find him.”

And Negan bristles at that.  “I didn’t do shit.  Rick pulled himself out of that hospital and got us moving.  I’d probably be still stuck in a FEMA trailer somewhere, fucking dying of starvation.  Fuck knows what would have happened to Morgan and Duane.”  Negan levels a square look at Shane, who looks taken aback.  “You underestimate Rick.”

Shane chuckles a little at that and shakes his head, leaning back.  “You don’t know Rick.  I do.”

“Shane-“

“I love Rick.  He is my brother.  I’ve known him since we were 12 years old.  We grew up together.  Went to high school together.  Then the academy together.  I was best man at his wedding.  When he was 16, he-- he was so scared to ask Lori to formal he puked outside behind the bleachers.  When we would go down to the watering hole in the summer, I had to push him off the bank to get him to jump in.  At the academy, we had to practice extra on weekends ‘cuz he kept jerking the trigger out of nerves.  When it came to asking Lori to marry him, he spent two months picking out a ring.”

(These stories piss Negan off as Shane says them, but later, Negan will love them.  They’ll be snapshots of a man Negan never got to know.  Not really.  He’ll bring them up to Rick sometimes, at night, when they lay beside each other.

“How in the world did you know that?” Rick will ask, suspicious.

“I got my ways,” Negan will respond, sliding a hand up Rick’s thigh and teasing under the cuff of his boxers.

“Did Shane tell you?” Rick will ask, grave as can be.

“Yes.”

It will kill the mood instantly.) 

But for now, Shane is still talking: “Ain’t nothing that man can’t do if he puts his mind to it.  He’s stubborn.  But we don’t live in a world where we can build ourselves up to doing the things we have to.  We gotta be ready to make hard choices.”

“Yeah, I can see how you would say that.”

“What?”

“Nothing, man.”  Negan trails off.  They travel along a back highway and, fuck, Negan hates how green everything is and how it forms a fucking impenetrable wall along the highway.  God fucking knows how many Walkers are shuffling around in there, just out of sight.  Christ, how could any of them make it in there, let alone a little girl? 

He and Shane hit a half a dozen farms along the route, lingering close to the car and shouting for Sophia and peering into windows.  They fucking book it whenever a Walker pops up.  At one house, Shane lifts his sidearm to take a shot at one.  Negan grabs his arm and shoves it down, shaking his head.

“Rick said not to shoot them.  We’ll have a whole fucking lot of them on us," he whispers urgently.

“We’re far enough away.  We’ll be fine.”  Shane lifts his arm again, but Negan just pushes it down again.  People are always surprised by Negan’s strength, diminished as it is lately due to malnutrition.  Shane seems taken aback, before continuing.  “Don’t you worry about what Rick says.  I know what I’m doing.”

Negan stares Shane down.  He’s not fucking getting torn apart out here, so far from home, and so far from the last people he has on earth.  And he sure as fuck isn’t dying next to Shane.  They keep searching until the light starts to fade, and they drive back.  It’s mostly quiet on the drive, each of them staring out the window.

“Rick is my best friend. I would do anything for him and Lori,” Shane says, out of nowhere. 

“Rick’s my friend now, too.  But I don’t think he and Lori need you or me doing anything for them.”  Negan waits a long minute, weighing whether or not he should say anything more.  But Negan hasn’t become Negan by not going balls to the wall on everything.

“Are you still planning on leaving?  You and Andrea?”  Shane startles, but doesn’t ask how Negan knows, or otherwise react. 

“No.” 

Negan’s a little disappointed, when he hears it.

***

For all that they are safer and don’t have to look over their shoulders all the time, Negan feels more unnerved here than he ever did on his own, or even at their old, vulnerable campsite.  There’s just an air of tension that can’t be shook.   Rick, at one point early on, goes off with Hershel and comes back looking distraught and upset, and for a second Negan thinks that Carl’s surgery failed.  Or worse, during the surgery, Hershel found out that Carl is sick and his days are numbered, like with Lucille.  But, when Negan asks if everything is alright with Carl, Rick smiles with such relief, Negan dismisses the thought.  But after the reassurance, Rick just goes back to looking stressed and worried.  It must be the stress of looking for Sophia.

Or, it might be the flare-ups that keep happening between the group and Hershel’s clan.  For agreeing to let them stay, Hershel sure is fucking uptight about the weirdest things.  He doesn’t like them carrying guns on the property, which nobody takes with good grace.  He gets mad when Jimmy comes along on a supply run.  Negan gets that; he was annoyed that the fumblefuck was coming along, too.  Hershel clearly is less than pleased with the looks that Glenn and Maggie have been giving each other.  He blows up at Rick for Daryl borrowing a horse to go out looking for Sophia. Dale asks if he can go in the barn to find some tools to help fix the Cherokee as much as possible, and Hershel vehemently shuts the idea down.  Otis, at least, tries to smooth over the situation and nervously offers up his own tools from his truck.

 At one point, when Carl is well enough to sit up and go outside (under Lori’s very protective gaze, of course), Negan sees that he and Duane are looking sad and missing Sophia.  He finds a glove and baseball lying around and brings them both over to the field by the house.  Carl is still building up his core strength again, and therefore can only watch.  But, Negan lets Duane use Lucille to practice batting.  For a stupid moment, Negan fears that the magic he feels every time he picks up Lucille will be lost by allowing an outsider to touch her, but when he takes the bat back for a minute, it fits perfect into his hand, just like before.  Lucille’s still there.  So they go back and forth for a while.  Even Beth and Maggie come out and cheer them on.  Til Hershel comes barreling out of the house, pissed off.

“Who said you could use that?” he shouts.

“I’m sorry.  I was just trying to cheer up the kids…” Negan trails off.

“Those aren’t yours.  Don’t use them.  Give them back!” Hershel becomes agitated.  He starts to take them roughly from Duane, which prompts Negan to jump forward, reaching out.  “Hey!  Don’t grab at him!”

“Negan!”  Rick interrupts, looking haggard and stressed.  “Just give them back to Hershel and apologize.”

Negan is flabbergasted and puts a hand on Duane’s shoulder.  “Sorry, man.”

“It’s alright,” Hershel says, calmer now.  “I’m sorry, it’s just.  Those are my step-son’s.  He won’t like other people using them.”  The use of the present-tense is disturbing, and the whole outburst ruins the day.  Negan brings it up to Rick later, and Rick looks worried about it, but insists that it’s just Hershel’s way of grieving.  Apparently, he had a wife and a step-son that he lost.  It makes Negan wary of the old man, even if he pities him a little.  All in all, they’re being treated like the annoying in-laws who get drunk at Thanksgiving and can’t leave fast enough, rather than welcomed fellow survivors.  Like neighbors, rather than the last fucking people on earth. 

Meanwhile, Carol wanders the property, making herself useful by helping cook and clean, but there is a constant strain on her face as she watches everyone still go out and, each day, come back empty-handed.  Lori is looking constantly panicked and asks Glenn to make a few special trips into the nearby town for supplies.  Dale and Andrea continue to snipe at each other, which is a relief, because it takes away from Andrea’s sniping-at-Negan time. 

Between Andrea bitching all the time, and Shane and Hershel going at it, and Rick wandering around with his head in his hands half the time, the air is way too tense at the farm most days.

Also too tense?  Negan.  Everyone has been living out of each other’s pockets for weeks now.  Even with space to spread out at the farm, they are all still stepping on each other.  Negan hasn’t been able to rub one out in ages.  And as Andrea shoots him one more death glare from atop the RV, Negan decides that that is fucking it.  He storms off into the little copse of woods bordering the farm, toward the swamp.  He finds a nice wide tree to get behind that still gives him a good view of the rest of the woods, and whips his dick out.  He rubs himself a bit and is surprised that he isn’t getting hard as quickly as he normally would after so long without. 

He lets his mind drift. He starts to think of Lucille, but that’s too fraught with sadness and anger still. What he needs is just a little mental stimulation to get this done and out.  Eventually, and to this day, Negan will never know why, he gets a flash of Rick.  When they were back in Cynthiana, and Rick had taken them to his police station.  Negan, Morgan, and Duane had been so happy to discover that the station had showers and, bonus, hot water.  There had only been a couple of stalls and Negan had walked past Rick’s to get to his own.  He’d glanced…just a bit. 

Now, he pulls out the memory and dwells on it just a bit longer than he had in actuality.  Rick, freshly shaved and clean, with water running down his back, droplets contouring lean muscles.  Ass clenched as he braced himself to try and shave and stand at the same time, water reflecting on pale skin…

And, yes!  There we go.  He starts to chub up.

He rewinds to just a little bit before that.  When Morgan and Duane had first found them and taken them back to their safehouse, Morgan had been insistent upon tying Rick to the bed, in case Rick’s mumbling and fever was from a bite wound and not waking up from a fucking coma and being brained with a shovel.  Negan had agreed to it, if only because he knew Rick was fine, and it would be the quickest way to gain Morgan’s trust.  He thinks on that visual now, and hello that awakens something in Negan he hadn’t known about himself before.

He pictures Rick tied to a bed, Lori riding him.  And then, hell, because it’s his imagination, he pictures himself pounding into Rick, his knees practically up under his chin as Negan slides in and out, in and out, in and out…

He’s so fucking close, when he hears a branch snap behind him.  Fearing Walkers, he turns around and almost dies when he sees it’s Lori.

“Oh!” she exclaims, eyes wide, because Negan is staring at her in surprise with his huge, purple dick in his hand.  There is the longest silence in the world while he makes absolutely no move to put his wang away.  Suddenly, she laughs and he can’t help but laugh back, because fuck it, they’re both adults and there’s no way she can know what he was thinking of.

“I, uh, I’m sorry.  I saw you walk off this way and Hershel and Rick wanted to talk to you about something.”

“Yeaaaaah, they’re gonna have to wait a minute, Lori,” Negan drawls, and she is already turning away and biting her lip to keep from laughing more.  “Unless you wanted to help me out?”  She laughs and says ‘no thanks’ and it’s a sweet, awkward moment to cut the tension.  (He’ll pull out the memory often, later, when he starts fucking her husband, as proof that she probably—maybe, anyway—is okay with it.)

***

They have dinner that night in the house and it is awkward as shit.  Andrea and Lori are glaring at each other fiercely, and Negan knows what that’s all about.  Shit, Negan’s glad that at least Donna had been fucking single, because Jesus Christ he could never do these awkward fucking encounters.  Shane sits there, awkward as fuck and Negan actually manages to maintain a little sympathy for him.  Or at least, he could, until Shane deliberately sidles his way to sit next to Lori.  Maggie looks dour and gloom-faced, and it gets worse when Hershel ostentatiously notices Glenn passing Maggie a note under the table like fucking teenagers.  He doesn’t demand anything, but it draws attention to the two, and his attention majorly cock-blocks any romance those two were thinking of getting into.

Beth is looking somber as well, and Jimmy tries to make conversation with her, but he seems to have forgotten that he was an inexperienced knob before the end of the world, and has been stuck on this farm for all the time after.  Negan has become unofficial babysitter of Carl and Duane, whom he does his best to amuse, but they all catch the mournful glances Carol shoots their way as Carl and Duane laugh.  It kills the mood, and Negan wants to tell her to stop taking it out on them, but shit, how can he?

Glenn sees a guitar and asks if anybody can play, and Otis and Beth volunteer to play and sing.  Negan hates it when kids sing, but it lifts the mood briefly.  Patricia watches Otis tearfully, before bursting into tears.  As Hershel and Otis comfort her, she tearfully sobs: “I almost lost you!  Don’t you ever go running out again!  Not for them!”  And, Jesus, lady; they’re right fucking there in the room.  Otis makes her no promises, and Shane rubs his head and looks away.  He shoots his head up and manages to catch Negan’s gaze before he can look away.  Shane guesses it; Negan can tell.  He knows that Negan saw, or at least suspects.  Before any words or further awkward glances can be shared, Beth bursts into tears as well and runs into her room, Jimmy trailing behind her.  The mood is murdered, and what was meant to be a nice, team-building gesture sputters out like a wet fart.

Negan goes out to his tent that night and pretends like he doesn’t see Glenn sneaking off toward the barn.  Now he knows what the note said, at least.  It’ll probably piss off Hershel, but, shit, at least somebody’s getting some fucking action around here.

***

Negan stops being jealous of Glenn when Glenn manages to get two of the women pissed at him.

A couple of days after the terrible dinner, Glenn and Maggie make another run into town on horseback, and come back, and whatever had Maggie annoyed with Glenn before they left makes her furious with him by the time they get back.  Negan is out of earshot, practicing swinging Lucille, but he can see Maggie walking toward Lori with fire under her ass, a meek Glenn trailing behind.  He sees Maggie toss some items at Lori in anger and heads over that way, but the altercation is over by the time he gets there.  Lori has scooped some things off the ground and retreated to her tent, and Glenn has gone to chase after Maggie to calm her down.  Negan feels like a fucking doofus for a second for managing to arrive in the nick of time to be of no help.

As he turns to head back, he sees a package wrapped in grocery paper still lying where Maggie had tossed it at Lori.  He picks it up and sees that it’s filled with bottles of prenatal vitamins, and holy fucking shit. 

He’s shocked, then feels stupid for feeling shocked.  It’s not like vaginas stopped working, or people stopped fucking, or anything.  They might be further down the food chain than they used to be, but the rest of the fundamentals haven’t changed.  It’s just that pregnancy and childhood seem so…forgotten, now.  And to be reminded that there was even a time when they existed is like walking outside in the morning to find the sun shining green or something. 

Weirdly, he also feels hurt.  He figured that Rick would have shared this news with him.  He follows Lori to her tent and does his best to announce his presence without having the luxury of a hard surface to knock against.  She looks up, startled. 

“Hey, Lori.  I, uh…I think Glenn was getting these for you?”  He hands the bottles to her, without another word and starts to leave, but turns back after a second. “Look, I just—uh.  Congratulations.  That’s really fucking something.  Really.  I mean, you and Rick should be proud.  The last few months have not been conducive to fucking, but Rick must have some amazing aim.”  Instead of making her laugh, her face sort of melts into something watery and sad, and Negan knows then that the baby is not Rick’s.  And that fucking blows.

“Please don’t tell Rick,” Lori says.  “I mean…let me tell him first.  He doesn’t know.”

“Ok.  You know Glenn and I are great at secrets.”  She does laugh a little at that, and he leaves.  He’s a little worried at how sad she looks. 

For the rest of the day, Negan and Glenn don’t make eye contact, with Lori, or with each other.  Rick asks for Negan’s help scoping out more possible locations on a map with Otis.  Negan also avoids eye contact with Rick the entire time, which makes Rick’s purse his lips and furrow his brow.  Negan makes it almost the whole day without making eye contact with anyone involved, until Shane comes up to him around dinner time. 

“Hey, Negan,” Shane starts, trying to initiate conversation for the first time ever.  Negan grunts in his general direction and goes to sit next to Rick, Lori, and Carl at the fire.  Shane looks pissed for a hot second, and Negan internally braces himself for having to deal with that shit on the next morning.

Of course, whatever drama that Negan feared becomes secondary when Glenn reveals his news about the barn.

***

“What do you see Negan?  Shane?”  Lori asks.  Negan tries to reconcile what he’s seeing between the slats with what he knows.  He knows that Walkers are dangerous and that anyone in their right mind would shit themselves and put as much fucking distance between them as possible.  And yet, here are a dozen of them.  Just sitting in the barn, wandering around like fucking chickens or goats or whatever the fuck lives in a barn.

“There’s a dozen of them in there.  Maybe more.  It’s hard to tell.”

“What in the hell was he thinking?  Why are they in there?” Rick asks.

“To Hershel, they’re his family members,” Dale chimes in.

“You knew about this?” Andrea asks, shocked and outraged.

“Glenn told me, and we talked with Hershel.  I was going to say something, but Glenn beat me to it.”

They’re all sitting around staring at each other, not sure what the fuck to do.  Shane begins to freak the fuck out and starts shouting and threatening to get the guns.

“Shane, no!  No!” Rick intervenes, getting in front of Shane.  “I will go talk to Hershel.  If he wants them here, we can’t do anything about it.”

“Can’t do anything?  We can make this place safe!” Shane shouts, spittle flying.

“It isn’t our place to make safe!” Rick shouts.

“Bullshit it ain’t!” Shane yells, and the mood changes sharply.  They all know what that means.  “Andrea!  Go get the guns!”  Shane shouts.  Andrea begins to move, but Rick steps in front of her.

“Don’t do anything!  If Hershel won’t let us kill them, then we have to respect that!  He’s about to kick us out as it is!”

“What?” Morgan asks, fear deep in his voice as he clutches Duane closer to him.  Rick seems to realize that he has let out a big secret unwittingly, and deflates.

“Hershel never said we could stay.”  Silence falls and Negan just feels his insides harden and fear begins to fill him.  He'd been living with fear so long before meeting Rick and the rest of the group, he'd forgotten what it felt like safely hidden away here these last weeks.  “He said we could stay until Carl got better and then we would have to go.”

“How long have you known this?” Negan asks, horrified.

“From almost the beginning.”

“Jesus Christ, Rick!” Negan feels an unaccountable sense of betrayal.  “How could you hide this?”

“I’m trying to convince Hershel to let us stay.  I think he will.  I do!  I think we can convince him to let us stay and help out.  But he definitely won’t if we kill those Walkers in the barn.  We need to stay calm.”

“Then we go!” Shane interjects.  “We hit the road and go to Fort Benning.”

“Ugh, not this bullshit again,” Negan rolls his eyes and turns away.

“Yes!  We pack up and we go.”

“That ain’t happening,” Daryl chimes in.

“Why not?” Andrea responds.

“Because Sophia is still out there!” Carol pleads.

“Now, Carol, I'm sorry, but I think it’s time we were realistic about Sophia,” Shane starts, but Dale interrupts.

“Don’t Shane.  None of us are ready to give up on her.”  Daryl steps forward, shoulders lifted and neck tilted at that come-at-me-asshole angle.  Shane backs down for a minute, and looks like he’s biting his lip to keep from exploding, which he proceeds to do anyway, when he turns and kicks a nearby bucket and screams.

“We need to go!”

“We’ll never make it. We can’t go,” Rick pleads.  Shane and he start arguing back and forth, louder and louder and louder til Rick shouts: “Lori’s pregnant!  We’re not going!”

Rick turns and storms off.  

“Where are you going?” Glenn shouts.

“To talk to Hershel!”

The shocked silence settles in as they all, one by one, turn to look at a red-faced, red-eyed Lori.

***

The news is devastating.  Leave?  Where the fuck are they going to go?  He wanders off to the edge of the open property, as far in the opposite direction of the barn as he can.  He sits down and tosses his head into his hands.  He’s trying to breathe slowly to calm down.  This is how Dale finds him.

“Negan?” Dale asks.  His voice has his usual urgent tone to it and Negan groans, as loud as he damn feels like, before lifting his head.

“Yes, Dale.”

“I need to talk to you about Rick.”

“Good Christ, I am not in the mood for this.  I have no solutions for you.”

“No, not about that,” Dale dismisses, cool as a fucking cucumber, as if the idea of all of them having to pack up their shit and leave doesn’t fucking matter.

“Well, then about what, Dale?”  Dale sets himself down next to Negan, and it rubs something in him wrong, to just have somebody set next to him without his permission.  Negan rears back a little, which Dale ignores.  Negan understands why Dale wanted to be so close in a minute, though.  What Dale reveals does not need an audience overhearing.

“What are you saying, Dale?” Negan says, trying to swallow his shock.

“I’m saying I saw Shane aim in at Rick’s back.”

“Do you think he was going to go through with it?” Negan asks, and mentally punches himself for being a dipshit, because the fact that Negan doesn’t protest or deny Dale’s description immediately lets Dale know that Negan believes that it did happen.

“I don’t know.  He saw me.  He saw that I saw him.  Maybe that was the only thing stopping him.  Maybe he was never going to.  I don’t know.”

“Dale, Rick and Shane are friends.  Why would he do that?”  But Negan knows why.  And Negan knows that Shane is capable of doing it. 

“Look, I don’t want to spread rumors…”

“Bull fucking shit, old man,” Negan interrupts, which Dale chooses to ignore in lieu of continuing gossiping.

“…But Lori and Shane—before Rick showed up and they thought he was dead, of course—were having an affair.  I think.”

“You think?” Negan asks, sideways.

“I accidentally spotted them once, out in the woods at the old camp.”

“Jesus, Dale, you just wander around creeping on people?” Negan jokes.

“I’m saying that Shane was in love with Lori.  Maybe still is.  It made him angry enough to maybe try and kill Rick before.  What’s going to happen now that she’s pregnant?”

Negan has no answer to that, even though he’s been thinking the same thing since Dale’s revelation.

“I don’t know, Dale.”

***

Shane and Andrea go off to check out a nearby housing development that they think Sophia might have run to.  When they come back, they are all hot and bothered, and it ain’t just 'cuz the development was overrun with Walkers and they had to fight their way out.  Not entirely, at least.  Negan’s a little jealous, if only because Glenn and Shane are getting some, and Negan most definitely isn’t.  And won’t be for the foreseeable future, it seems.

It also makes him nervous.  He’s heard Shane’s grumbling, and Andrea’s grumbling, and together they make a whole fucking load of grumbling squared.  Dale apparently tried to talk Andrea out of it, but she gives him the brush off, as per usual. 

Later, Negan is trying to figure out how a water pump works—dick well, as far as he can tell—when Andrea approaches him.  Negan is immediately on edge.

“Hold on, Andrea.  Need to get turned around.  Wouldn’t want my back to ya,” he says, half-joking.  She rolls her eyes.

“Very funny.”

“Who’s trying to be funny?”

“Look, I know that we…tend to disagree on things, but I would like to talk to you about something.”

“If it’s to discuss the time and nature of our romantic assignation, then yes, that is something we need to discuss.”

“No.  I wanted to talk with you about this search for Sophia that Rick has us all doing.”  She has settled her arms on her hips, a pose Negan doesn't remember her doing until recently.

“It’s not morning exercises, Andrea.  Rick isn’t ‘having us do’ anything, besides look for a lost kid.”

“But you and I both know that she isn’t lost, Negan.  She’s dead.”  He stops wiping the sweat off his face and stares at her for a long second.  She takes his stare for a moment, before staring back more defiantly and raising her eyebrows.  “What, Negan?  You want me to walk around and pretend like it’s something we’re not all thinking?”

“We aren’t all thinking it, Andrea.”

“Most of us are.  You are, too.  I can tell.  You may not want to believe it, but it’s true.  We have been searching all over this valley and we haven’t found a trace of her.”

“Daryl found her doll.”

“Which even Rick said could have been swept downriver with the current.  Look,” she says, putting her hands up in a gesture of pause, “If you want to believe that she might be alive, then I can’t argue with that.  But even you have to see how dangerous this search is getting.  Shane and I almost got killed in that housing development the other day.  Daryl took that tumble the other day.”

“Yeah, and then you shot him.”

“On accident!” She fires up, before calming down.  “Look, people are getting hurt and, frankly, drawing more Walker attention to us.  And all of this driving out and searching aimlessly.  It’s using up gas we might be needing later on down the line, and with us being one vehicle short, now that Carol’s is out of commission…”

“Cars and gas.  Jesus Tapdancing Christ.  Is that what a kid’s life is worth now a days?  This, this isn’t you talking.  This is Shane.”

“What?” she says, outraged.

“Long-term survival, gas, cars: this is all Shane’s talk.”

“No.  This is my talk.”

“Then, why come to me, Andrea?  You don’t like me, and I don’t trust you.  Why don’t you bring this up with Rick?  Or have Shane bring it up with Rick?”

“Because Rick listens to you!  You two are always talking and planning, and Hershel seems to trust Rick, so I have to come to you.”

“Yeah, and I bet Shane just loves all of that.”

“You know what, Negan?  Do what you want.  I’m just bringing it up to you, so you can have the chance to bring it up with Rick, before it’s too late.”  And on that ominous note, she turns away and marches off, the gun she hasn’t yet turned in to Dale after their jaunt sitting more and more comfortable on her hip with each day.

Negan is no fool.  He’s seen how good Andrea is the times that they go and do shooting practice.  She’s a good shot, and so is Shane.  Negan’s good, too, but he wonders if he’s that good.  Her words drive him fucking crazy, as he continues to work on the well pump before realizing that he knows fucking dick about any of this shit, and gives up in exasperation.  He thinks about what she said about giving up on Sophia, and he can’t even wonder if she’s right and he’s just been knowingly kidding himself all this time.  More, he thinks back to what she said about Rick.

He listens to you!

It warms him.  A lot.  He hadn’t realized just how in each other’s pockets he and Rick are these days.  He’s simply gotten used to finding himself standing by Rick’s shoulder, chiming in on plans, or offering suggestions.    He hasn’t talked with Rick all day since the devastating realization of how tenuous their safety is.  He misses him, sappy as that shit is.  And he hates how disappointed he feels in Rick. 

So, he goes to find Rick, who is sitting on Hershel’s porch, head in his hands.

“I take it you talked to Hershel?” Negan says.  God knows that exhausted posture could only come from talking with the elderly and stubborn, like Hershel and Dale.  Negan full-body leans against one of the porch stanchions looking down at Rick.

“Yeah.”  Rick stops there.

“He hasn’t changed his mind?”

“No.”

“We leaving?”

A long pause ensues.  “No.”  Negan raises his eyebrows.  “Not yet.  I think we can still convince him.  He knows Lori’s pregnant.  I’ve told him now.  I think he’ll understand; it’s a death sentence.”

“Jesus, Rick.  Women give birth all the time.  It’s not ideal how things are now, but it’s not the end of the world.”

“Lori was going to end it.”  Negan is shocked.  “She’s terrified of the idea of giving birth here.  Carl’s pregnancy was hard enough.  And now she’ll have this extra burden that can die at any moment…” And Rick actually sobs.  Negan rushes to sit next to him and slings a careless arm over his shoulder.

“Hey, hey, hey.  It’s ok.  Lori’s tough.  She was scared.  Whatever happened, she’s just scared.”  Negan carefully doesn’t even bring the paternity into the issue.  Rick is stressed as it is.

“She doesn’t want it!  She doesn’t think we can protect it here.  How can I protect it out there!” Rick moans.  Negan doesn’t have an answer.  Just a wellspring of pity for Rick, and for Lori.  Shane wanders by at one point, presumably to start up his argument again. He sees Rick sitting quietly with his face in his hands again and assumes…whatever the fuck he assumes.  Negan just sits next to Rick on the porch.

They have reached the time of hard choices.  Shane had to make his with Otis.  Lori had to make hers with this baby.  Negan wonders when his will come.

***

He grabs Lucille and his jacket later and heads out to the woods again.  He looks around to make sure the area's abandoned, before zipping up his jacket.  He closes his eyes for a second and thinks about who he used to be.  How he made the kids in his class cry, even when he didn’t mean to.  How he’d always felt like a prick in the aftermath, but in the moment, just for a second, he felt powerful.  He grabs that feeling and holds it.

“Lucille, give me strength,” he says gripping his bat.  He opens his eyes, and leans into his body a little bit.  Like he hasn’t a care in the world and all the time in the day.  He swings the bat a little, just back and forth along his side.  Just acting casual.

He pictures Carol's sad face, staring off into the woods as if Sophia will come stumbling out of it any second.  He pictures pale, screaming Carl in a bed, life being wrestled back in by Rick.  He pictures tough as nails Lori, crying as she contemplates ending her baby's life.

He pictures Hershel in front of him.  Old.  Slow.  Petulant.  He imagines waiting until Rick is out of the house and just walking in, without an invitation.  Hershel will be hanging out in their comfy living room, looking at Negan like a nuisance door-to-door vacuum salesman or something. 

“I heard a funny rumor today,” he’ll start, and Negan can feel himself saying it, out there alone in the woods.  Practicing.  Just like at school, evaluating what tone and what phrases would get a reaction out of his students and their parents.

“Oh?” Hershel will drawl out, unimpressed, but wary.

“I heard that you were planning on kicking us out soon,” Negan will respond, leaning against his bat like a cane.  “Is that true?”

“It is.  The farm can’t support all of you.  I was fine with you being here until the boy could travel.  He should be well enough in a week or two.  Then, I’m afraid we’ll have to part ways.”

“Well, that was before.  I’m sure you’ve since heard about Lori being pregnant.  Now, I know you wouldn’t be considering sending a pregnant woman out into the wild, would you?  You being such a…good Christian and all.”

“I can’t help you.”

And even out here, even practicing the scenario with a Hershel that’s entirely in his mind, he can’t find the words to convince him.  A goddamn fucking figment of his fucking imagination, and he still can’t fucking get his way.  There isn’t anything that Negan can say that would convince him, except that Negan is fucking tired of watching people die, and there being no hope.  And then to sit here and watch a man who has it all and doesn’t even give a shit that he’s so close to losing it, and it feels like the only way to get him to see it is to fucking. Pound. That. Shit. In.

And Negan takes Lucille and starts just wailing on a tree nearby.  Just beating the ever loving tree-sap shit out of it. 

He comes back to himself, shaking and sweaty and muscles aching.  He feels something, deep in his belly, something other than the rage that was powering him.  He can’t place it, this feeling, until he has staggered back toward the farmhouse and runs into doe-eyed Beth, who has brought everyone a pitcher of lemonade and is smiling sweetly.

It’s fear.  Of himself.  But it’s also power.

***

Negan is quiet for the rest of the day.  It must seem out of character, because no fewer than five people ask how he’s doing.  Glenn, Duane, Carl, and Morgan all swing by and say hi.  Dale shoots him concerned glances every now and then, but reserves his prying comments for Andrea’s disdain.  Rick slaps a hand on his shoulder and gives it a squeeze.

He goes to Rick later, as he is carrying a bucket and spilling seed everywhere, looking more comfortable than such a non-farmer should.

“Hey, Negan.”

“Hey, Rick.  Not to pry, but what the fuck are you doing?”

“Helping Hershel feed the chickens. I figure if we show them how helpful we are, it’ll help our case.”

“Well ain’t you cute.”

“Shut up and help me,” Rick laughs, shoving a second bucket at Negan.  Negan shoves his hand into the seed like he’s been asked to find a shit in a jizz bucket.  Ugh, fuck this life.  But he came here for a reason, and Rick’s chore reminds him.

“Rick, we cannot stay here,” Negan starts.

Rick laughs, awkwardly, “What are you talking about?”

“This place isn’t safe.  We have to start looking at other fucking options.”

“What options do you think we have, Negan?”  Rick sounds bitter, but the way things are going, Negan can’t blame him.

“You were so fucking right before; winter is coming, and we need supplies, and protection.”

“Which we have, here.”

“What we have here is a moat and some chicken wire, and a man who is living in his own reality and won’t let us carry our guns around.  What are we going to do when the Walkers find us?”

“Hershel says they get stuck in the bog and can’t get across.”

“Hershel fucking says!” Negan tosses down the bucket he was carrying in aggravation.  “Hershel doesn’t know shit about anything!  He thinks those people are still alive.  He thinks they can be saved.  Do you believe that?”

“No.”

“Cuz you are fucking on it.  This man?  This man, he is not.  And we are being held back by him.”

“And what do we do about Lori, huh?  She is pregnant.  I can’t take my wife out into the wild like this!” Rick is practically in tears as he says it, but Negan has been preparing his argument.  He puts his hands on Rick’s shoulders and follows Rick’s gaze as Rick becomes uncomfortable with Negan’s forcefulness.  Negan puts his hand on the side of Rick’s face.  He’s seen Shane do it, so he figures Rick won’t start swinging at him, and how Negan himself might feel about the closeness is really nobody else’s business.

“We don’t have to leave right away.  We start scouting out the area, seeing what’s nearby.  I know you Georgia Peaches like to have twenty fucking miles between neighbors like a bunch of weirdos, but there have to be other places nearby.  Or maybe even not so nearby.  We can be scouting out places to go, so that way when Farmer Hershel finally gives us the fucking boot, we can be ready.”  It’s a good idea, and he knows Rick sees that it is. 

“But if we can just work on Hershel some more, I think he will let us stay.”

“For how long, Rick?  Shane has been rubbing against him wrong like two teenagers fucking in the backseat of a car.” Rick rolls his eyes at the mental image, which is when Negan gets serious. “And what are we going to do if he doesn’t?  What if he tells us tomorrow, or in a month, or in Lori’s 9th month, that we have to go?”  Negan pauses.  “Are we going to go, Rick?”

“Well, what other choice would we have?”

“Well, that is the question, Rick.”  Rick starts to shake his head.  “I don’t want to, but I know you’ve heard Shane talking.  He wants to take this ranch.  He wants to stay, and he won’t leave under his own power.  When the choice comes, Rick--leave or stay--what are we going to do?”

“No, no, no.  We are not going to even discuss something like that.  Not when we still have options.”

“What about when we don’t, Rick?  What the fuck do we do then?”

“You wanna roll up on that house?  Pull guns on those people and, and…what?  Kill them?  You wanna kill an old man and some women?”

“No, Rick.  I don’t.  But nor do I want to waste our time and our lives protecting people who won’t do it themselves.  You, me, Morgan…even Carol.  We may not know shit about survival, but we are trying.  If all these people want is to let themselves die, then fucking let them die.”

“That’s how it is, then?  The strong living, and the weak dying?  We’ve gone straight to the survival of the fittest, have we?  Jesus.”  Rick runs a hand over his face, and turns away, before pacing back in a circle to face Negan again.

“Rick, I just want us to survive.”

“We can survive.  Here.”

“We are not farmers, Rick!”

“Well, we are now!  I wasn’t a lot of things before all of this.  And now I have to be.”

“What you ‘have to be,’ is paying attention, Rick.  You’ve got so much shit going on under your nose, that you are not smelling.”

He goes to his tent that night and, even though the barn is yards and yards away, and it can’t be possible, all he can hear is the scraping of dead hands against padlocked doors and the moans of the dead inside, who have once again managed to sense that he’s just on the other side.

***

Rick apparently forgives Negan, because he’s woken up by the prodding of a boot toe into his lower spine through his tent.  “Ow, you dick monkey.  What the fuck?”

“Quiet.  It’s only just dawn.”

“Which again leads to my question: what the fuck?”

“I’ve gassed up the car, and I borrowed an atlas from Otis.  I want to make sure we have enough daylight to get as many miles out as possible.  I was looking at it last night as best I could.  Near as I can tell, four hours away there might be some good prospects.  There’s a national guard station, a prison, a couple of little towns.  Maybe some of those places has supplies we could use.  Or other people.  Or even a safer place to settle.”  Rick is glancing at him sideways, and Negan realizes it’s a peace offering.

“Well, let’s hit the fucking road, then.”

***

“Who’s going to be watching after everyone back at the farm?”

“I’m leaving Shane in charge.  I think that’s why he’s been so angry lately.  He feels like I don’t trust him, or that I’m not listening to him.  I think this’ll help.”  Negan thinks that feeling unappreciated is the least of what Shane's feeling.

***

They head east for a while, but get lost on some backroad they have to take and end up losing half a day.  They stop at a few houses along the way, but many of them are long-abandoned and dilapidated.  Some are simply full of Walkers.  Rick does calculus level math or some shit, gauging gas mileage and travel times and daylight hours and all that shit.  Unfortunately neither of them are prepared for a ramble of Walkers that are meandering down a highway they were planning on going down to get to Woodbury, so they have to turn back and it ends up costing them valuable daylight.  It becomes dark, and they make the decision to just pull into a long driveway just off the road and sleep in the car, rather than drive around in the dark.

“We have headlights.  Believe it or not, but we actually did drive in the dark before,” Negan reminds him, as they tuck blankets into the rolled up windows of the car, and put a sun visor on the front window to prevent Walkers seeing in.  It’s cramped and it’s going to get stuffy before the night is through, but it beats the alternative of sleeping outside.

“Yeah, but they seem attracted to light and movement, and I don’t want to run into a whole huge group of them in the dark.  I saw what you did to Carol’s car,” Rick chuckles.

“That’s fucking gratitude for you,” Negan starts.  He settles as best he can on the back bench seat.  The car has a moon roof, which they’ve left closed, but opened the visor so they can at least look through the glass at the stars. 

“Gratitude?” Rick laughs.  Negan can’t see him, but he’s settled in the front bench seat, somehow. 

“Yeah, for saving your punk ass best friend.  Some people.”  Negan means it jokingly.  He does.  There are so few topics not fraught with tension these days, he’s learned to just say things anyway.  But there’s a heavy silence coming from the front seat that he can’t ignore.

“Rick?”

“I don’t think Shane is my best friend anymore.”

Negan doesn’t respond for a minute.  He knows what Rick means, but they’re still early on in all this.  The idea that, at some point, everyone becomes expendable, hasn’t entered into their minds yet.  Or, it has, but nobody is experienced enough with it to flat out say it.  Instead Negan cracks a joke.  “What are we?  Twelve?  You mad because he ain’t sharing his porno mags with you?”

“I’m mad because I think he hates me.  I’m mad because I’m doing the right thing and all I’m getting is anger from him.  A little girl goes missing, you look for her.  That’s it.  That’s all.  Just because some things change, doesn’t mean that all things do.  I’m mad because nothing I do seems to be right.  I keep feeling everyone’s eyes on me, and I keep telling them that everything’s gonna be fine.  But, I’m lying to them.  And they know it.  And it just makes them angrier.  And I can’t figure out what to say to make them happy.  Not Shane.  Not Andrea.  Not Dale.  Not you.  Not--,” he swallows, “Not Lori.  I’m running out of ideas.  There are days I just want to throw my hands up and just…leave.  I didn’t ask for these people.  I just wanted to find my family.”

And Negan suddenly feels like a dick for making a hard situation harder.  “Well, I’ll tell you what, Rick.  After we find Sophia and the baby’s born, if everyone’s still being a bunch of fucking sad little dickbags, why don’t we just go?”

“What?”

“We load up a car, and go?  You, Lori, Carl, Baby Grimes.  Me.  We’ll all just go and find our own place.  Think how happy Lori’s gonna be having both you and me around to keep her satisfied.”

It has the intended effect and Rick starts laughing.  He tosses a vague arm over the seat back to try and punch Negan’s shoulder, but Negan just shoves it back and laughs.

“That’s a nice idea, Negan.  It is.  But I can’t leave Carol and Sophia.  I promised them.”  Negan’s heart swells a little at that.  Promises: he’s said a lot of them, but nobody ever seems to mean them the way that Rick does. 

“Well, we’ll bring Carol and Sophia, too.  I’m a charming man; I’m sure I can convince Carol to give it a go with me.  Can’t be any worse than Ed.”  Rick shudders at that.

“No.  No, you can’t.” 

“We’ll find a place somewhere where we can have houses next to each other.  A duplex or some shit.  We’ll be neighbors.  You and Lori will complain about the constant fucking Carol and I will be doing, and Sophia and Carl will be best buds, and we’ll have to keep an eye on those two to keep them from fucking.”  Rick groans, but it’s also half a laugh.  Negan lets the silence settle just a little.  “I’m just saying, Rick: we have options.  Maybe more now than we ever did.”

Rick hums thoughtfully at that, and that’s the last they talk about it.

*** 

They’re woken up later that night by screams in the night.  It’s a woman.  Then, two.  Their shouts echo among the trees and Rick and Negan sit in the car’s darkness, perfectly still.  He waits for Rick to rush out and start talking about looking for them.  Negan is already preparing his counter-argument: they don’t know the area; the women could be anywhere or any distance in the woods; they’re probably already being eaten, if they’re screaming so panicked.

The screams last a lot longer than Negan expects.

We have to be the ones to make it back, is on his tongue, ready.

Negan waits, tense and bothered.  Rick is silent for a long, bated breath.  He exhales, and says nothing.

***

They head out again at first light.  They don’t talk about what they heard last night.  Instead, Negan gives a long ode to his dick (heh, pun intended) and how its magic has steered him through life.

“It’s like you have no idea how horrible you are,” Rick laughs.  A long, comfortable pause ensues, but it feels nice.  Negan sees now the resentment and tension that has been building in him.  He hadn’t recognized his sleepless nights and clenched gut for what it was.  This time with Rick, alone, has made him relaxed.  If they just keep driving and never go back to Hershel’s, it feels like everything will be fine, even though Negan knows that isn’t true.

They get back to the farm and the tension hits them like a dick slap to the face.  Glenn and Maggie seem to have made up, which is nice, because God knows this world needs a little more loving going on.  Carl is up and walking around and he and Duane chase each other around the cows, and that’s sweet.  But everyone else is on edge.  T-Dog, Shane, and Andrea are one end of the yard, shuffling feet and looking shifty.  Dale, Morgan, Lori, and Carol are on another edge of the yard.  Daryl is off in his own tent by the edge of the property looking moody and upset.  He and Shane had almost come to blows days before when discussing Sophia. 

Their group is disintegrating.

Rick seems upset by the evidence in front of his face.   Negan can tell by the look in his face that he’s trying to think of ways to bridge the gaps between them all.  Rick seems on board with the “find a new place and leaving” plan, but not with the “cut losses and let them fuck off” part.  Negan, who has never loved freely, doesn’t get it.

Shane comes over when he sees Rick and Negan get out of the car.  “Any luck?” he calls. 

“Not so far, but we got cut off in a bunch of places.  That huge herd we saw pass through on the highway is still around.  It feels like we’re stuck right in the middle of it.”  Everyone looks dour at this news, Hershel’s impending and unflinching deadline looming over them.

“But we’ve got leads.  We’re going out again tomorrow,” Negan adds.  It’s unclear how inspiring that ended up being, as Shane grumbles out a “Yeah, right” and storms off.

“If we tell Hershel the situation out there, he might be more receptive to us staying,” Rick tosses out, attempting to pacify them.

“You think that, do you?” Andrea says.  And Negan sees it now.  Andrea and Shane are a thing.  Only, she doesn’t know that Shane will never love her.  Or maybe he can, and will, and this is just one more way that Rick and Shane are forging different paths.

***

They head out again the next day.  And the day after that.  It’s while Negan has stepped out to piss on the side of the road that he finds a sign that’s been knocked over.  “I told ya, Rick. My dick is fucking magic.  It has shown us the way.”

“What are you talking about?”  Negan triumphantly holds the mileage sign aloft and tosses it to Rick who hilariously does not catch it, to avoid having to touch Negan’s urine.  He looks down at it. 

“It says there’s a National Guard station 30 miles out.  Some town called Woodbury 45 miles out, and a prison 5 miles out.” 

“Jesus, finally some fucking options.  You wanna hit the town first?  Or the guard station?”

“I don’t know if we have enough gas to go that far and get back to the farm, and I don’t want to spend the night out here again.  Let’s check out the prison.”

“Ugh, really?”

“Hey, beds, clothing, food.  It’ll have its own infirmary and generator, too.  State law required it.  It’ll have fences, too. If it’s still standing.”

“Prisoners, too,” Negan reminds him.

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  They might have been evacuated.  C’mon.  Let’s go while we still have enough daylight to make it back.”

***

Their fucking luck, the prison actually is still standing.  It’s filled with fucking Walkers staggering around, but it’s standing. 

“We can do this,” Rick says, sounding optimistic and excited.  “We can take it in stages.  First the outer fence, then the inner.  And then finally the main complex.  We can clear it out block by block.  Those places are meant to be difficult for movement between the blocks.  We could do it at our time, at our speed.”  And, man, it is nice to see Rick being decisive again.

“What, you and me?”

“And Shane.  And Daryl, Dale, T-Dog, and Glenn and Morgan.  Andrea, too.  She’s pretty handy with a gun.”  Negan is not thrilled with the notion of Andrea with a gun.  Especially anywhere near Negan.  But, Rick smiles and claps Negan on the shoulder.  “This could work.”

***

They get back and it’s to find everything turned to shit.

Chapter Text

They roll back onto the farmhouse and are suspiciously greeted by nobody.  Negan barely has a chance to comment on the silence until it is loudly, pants-shittingly broken by gunfire.  A shitload of it.  He and Rick share a look before running off in the direction it came from.  Negan can only imagine how complicated their life is about to get; Hershel had been unequivocal about his disapproval of their having guns while on his property.   As they run over, all Negan can think of is who has decided to join Shane in taking over the farm.

Instead, they find a line of people outside the barn.  The door has been opened, and the dozen or so Walkers locked in there spill out.  Hershel and his brood are cowering on the ground, and Otis has been punched in the face, judging by the blood leaking out of his nose.  Meanwhile, Andrea, Shane, T-Dog, and Glenn are gunning down the Walkers spilling out like roaches.

He and Rick exchange barely a glance before they sprint the rest of the way over to the barn.  By the time they make it, they’re too late.  The action is over; the Walkers are piled up where they’ve fallen outside the barn door. 

In the heavy silence that follows, all Negan can hear is everyone’s harsh breathing.

And then: growling. 

Rick and Negan are too late in more ways than one.

**

They find Sophia, and it is too late.  Has been too late for weeks.  Rick has to shoot her and….Jesus, Negan can’t even think about it anymore.  He looks over to Rick and begins to put a hand on his shoulder, but Rick turns away fiercely.  Carol is on the ground, Daryl cradling her in his arms.  Negan would call her moans wailing, but it isn’t.  It’s quiet and broken and desolate, not unlike Carol herself.  It's the worst thing Negan has ever seen.

(It isn't.  Not anymore, anyway.  But it will always be in his Top 10 list.)

It seems colossally unfair that, less than 24 hours later, Rick will also be forced to commit his first murder.

**

Hershel disappears after they finish giving their sorry shit show of a service for Sophia and Hershel’s family, and his daughter is worried for him, so Rick volunteers to go collect him from the bar that Rick has intuited is Hershel’s destination.  Shane tries to come along, too, but Rick barks at him to stay behind and “clean up his mess.”  It turns Negan on a little, no lie.  Negan volunteers, too, but Rick barks out “no.”  At Negan’s look, Rick sighs and lifts a hand.

“Please, just stay here.  Glenn’s going to come with me.”

“Yeah, because Hershel and Glenn are so close.”

“Negan, I’m just going to go talk to him and bring him home.”

“So you’re saying you don’t trust me to be sensitive enough to talk with him?”

“Basically?  Yes,” Rick responds, not even looking at him as he buckles on his gun belt.

“Thanks a lot, dick.”

“It’s not just that, Negan.”  And Rick gets his ‘serious’ face on, and Negan leans in.  “I don’t want to leave this place unprotected right now.  If something happens to me and Glenn, somebody strong needs to be here to make sure the rest of the group keeps going.”

“Rick…”

“And somebody needs to be here to keep Shane from killing Otis.”  Negan starts at that, but then he gets it.  Otis had been the one shoving those bodies in the barn, according to Hershel.  He would have known if the exact young girl they had been spending weeks looking for was in there.  Hershel probably knew, too.  Hell, this whole fucking family might have known.  The realization makes him pissed as he sees Rick and Glenn off.  It pisses him off so much, he doesn’t realize until later what Rick has said.  Somebody needs to keep Shane from killing Otis.  So, Rick believes Shane can kill, now.  But Negan is so mad at all their wasted time and tears, that he can’t find it in him to disagree with Shane right now.

It burns with him as he watches Shane, T-Dog, and Andrea pile the corpses of the strangers up to burn.  Negan doesn’t join them.  Instead, he goes to the trailer where Carol is finally weeping.  She’d been surprisingly calm and distant before the service, and it freaked Negan the fuck out.  Daryl has abandoned her to go sulk by the property edge, and Negan actually feels disappointed.  He had begun to feel differently about the hick; like maybe he was really as helpful as he was trying to pretend he was.

Negan sits on the little mattress next to Carol, her back turned to him.  He puts a hand on her shoulder and just feels the small, constant vibrations of her sobs.  They don’t talk, because Negan has nothing to say that she will want to hear.  

**

His anger at Hershel and Otis continues, as daylight burns and nobody talks to each other.  All this fucking time: wasted.  It continues as Lori comes around and asks him to go after Rick and Glenn, and he is just too fucking happy to get up and go.  Fuck this place, and these people.  Letting a mother wander around like a ghost looking for a daughter long dead.  Holding the promise of safety just out of their reach, like a carrot on a fucking stick.  Now Rick and Glenn are out there in the growing dark, risking death, for an old man who isn’t worth it.  Lori could be a widow already and, just like with Sophia, they wouldn’t even know until Rick just never came back and weeks later they stumble on him wandering around, grumbling and groaning, blue eyes even bluer with death and…Jesus Fuck.  Fuck this.

Negan pounds on the door of the farmhouse so hard it vibrates in its casing, and Patricia suspiciously opens the door a few inches to squint at him.

“What do you want?”

“Get Otis.”

“Why?”

“Woman.  Get. Him.”  Something in his face must terrify her, and he hates it, because he hates men who bully women.  But, needs must, and she closes the door.  While he waits, Maggie comes up to him, dirt-covered from digging her own family’s graves.  It startles Negan, and keeps him from saying the first hateful things that come to mind.  He even begins to feel a little sorry for her.  She loves Glenn, or as close to it as two young idiots can be in a few short weeks, and he’s out there, too.

“Are you going after them?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“I want to go with you.”

“Fuck, no.  You’re staying here.”

“Beth is sick.  There’s something really wrong with her.  I’m scared, and she needs Daddy.  He’ll listen to me.”  Negan looks long and hard at her. 

“Did you know?”  He doesn’t elaborate, and he instantly re-evaluates the maturity of this slip of a girl in front of him, as she immediately understands him.  She meets his eyes and clenches her jaw, and answers him.

“No.  I didn’t know.”  She pauses and looks away, but forces her eyes back to his.  “But I should have.  I knew Otis and Daddy were putting those Walkers in the barn.  I wondered if one of them might be that little girl.  But I didn’t want to think about it.  I told myself that if she was in there, it didn’t matter, because once a cure came along, she’d be fine.”

“Do you still believe there’s a cure?”

Maggie tears up.  “No.”

“Then you can come with me.”

Otis arrives at that moment.  Negan curtly demands the keys to his truck, which Otis stumblingly hands over.  Carol’s car has made no progress towards getting fixed, and Negan’s not about to ask for Shane’s.

“I’m so sorry.  I should have said something earlier.  I was just worried you would want to kill them all if you knew…”

“Shut up.  Stay inside.  I’m working…working…on understanding your idiocy.  But others,” and Negan turns his head toward the camp where Shane is sulking by the fire, “Are not.  You’ll be safer in here.”

Negan and Maggie climb into Otis’s truck, and Lori comes up to them.  “Thank you, Negan.  I was about ready to go myself.”

“Don’t even think about it, Lori.  If we aren’t back by dawn, don’t send anyone else after us.  No more stupid risks.”

She puts a hand on her belly as Negan puts the truck into drive and starts the slow crawl down their driveway.  He ignores Shane’s glare as he drives away, and the chorus of Carl and Duane yelling his name.

**

It ends up being a good thing he brought Maggie, because she ends up guiding him toward the town.  The sun is beginning to set, and Negan knows it will be fully dark by the time they collect everyone and make it back.  As much shit as he gave Rick for his aversion about driving in the dark, he gets it now.  Every movement of a tree turns into the stumbling of a Walker in Negan’s imagination.

Negan hasn’t really spent much time with Maggie, and he doesn’t really know what to say in the silence.

“Look, I’m really bad with silences.  Fucking say something.”

“Just like Glenn,” she smiles.

“Ugh, you two must have it fucking hard.”

“Well, it’s not like I have a lot of options.  End of the world and all.  That’s what I told myself in the beginning, anyway.  But Glenn’s different.  He’s kind.  And I’m beginning to realize there isn’t going to be a lot of that left to go around soon.”

Negan can’t disagree.

“I’m sorry.  For your family.  I’m sure they were…nice.”  Negan runs out of anything to say after that, and looks over to Maggie to gauge her reaction.  She’s smiling, tearfully, at him, and it feels good to see.

Because he’s the dipshit who takes his eyes off the road, of course they fucking hit a Walker.

**

“So, is this a fixable thing?” Negan says, doing his best to lean over Maggie’s shoulder while also keep an eye on their perimeter.  He has Lucille at the ready, and the rifle that he took out with them this morning to the prison still slung over his shoulder.  With their truck stuck on the side of the road, tilted slightly, and the windshield cracked, his weapons feel like nowhere near enough. 

“Well, the tire’s blown out.  When you swerved, you must have run over something.”

“So….no?”  Maggie looks over her shoulder at him, a ‘are you kidding?’ look at him.  “Look, I don’t know shit about cars.”

She smirks and rolls back on her heels to stand up.  She goes to the back of the truck and produces some tools and pulls a tire from somewhere.  She gets to work, and Negan would feel super emasculated, but he’s too busy keeping an eye on the setting sun.

“Why did Rick think that your Dad went to the bar?” Negan asks.  He hears the sounds of tools clinking away over his shoulder as he keeps his back to her.

“Daddy used to be a drinker before I was born.  Stopped the day I was born.  I’ve heard stories, but Daddy doesn’t like to talk about it too much.”

“Well, if ever there was a time for drinking…” Negan starts.

“Then it wouldn’t be while his daughters are sick and stuck in the middle of the end of the world,” she snaps, yanking hard on some kind of tool.  “My daddy swore he would never touch liquor again.  Running off to sit alone and wallow in his own misery, making us sit on top of those Walkers for weeks on end, sitting less than 100 yards away from my step-mother’s rotting corpse!”  The wrench slips out of her hand as she breaks down into tears, and puts her hands over her face.

“Hey.  Maggie.  Please.  Don’t cry.  I do not know how to fix this car, and I do not know how to get to this town.  I am literally incapable of doing anything right in this scenario.”  Maggie pulls herself together.

“I will.  If you promise me something,” she says, getting back to fixing their truck.

“What?”

“Promise me that next time Glenn volunteers to do something for Rick, a run, or killing a stuck Walker, or anything like that, that you’ll stop him.”

“Maggie.  I know you and Glenn are young, but neither of you are kids anymore.  Nobody can make those decisions for Glenn now.  But I’ll look out for him, however I can.”

She finishes up whatever she’s doing and smiles tearily over her shoulder.  “Thanks.  Almost makes up for you being completely useless with cars.”

“Hey there, missy.  Wait til you see what I am useful with.  That was a penis joke right there, in case you missed it.”

“Don’t worry.  I didn’t.  Just wasn’t impressed by it,” she winks, as she tosses the remaining tools into the truck bed.  Negan chuckles at her, as she holds onto a heavy-ass wrench, which she tucks into her belt.

**

They roll up toward the bar that Maggie is guiding him to.  He heaves a subtle sigh of relief when he sees Rick and Hershel’s cars out front.  They made it this far, at least.  Negan and Maggie shut their car doors, and Negan is shocked to shit to hear their door slams echo four times.  And then he realizes, that it’s no echo.  That’s fucking gun shots.

“Glenn!” Maggie yells, running toward the bar, Negan hot on her heels. 

He’s expecting to bust open the door to find a hoard of Walkers stumbling around in there: Hershel, Rick, and Glenn trapped.

Instead, he finds two very real, very fresh corpses on the floor.  And he’s staring down the barrel of Rick’s gun.

**

“Jesus’s tits, Rick, what have you done?”  Negan prods the closest one with his toe.  There’s a great pulpy mass where the top of his head was, so it’s not like there’s much danger he’s still alive…or even not alive anymore.  The corpse chooses that second to evacuate its bowels and Negan is fucking gagging.

“Aw, Jesus, and I thought Otis was fat.”  He takes in serious breaths through his mouth, and casts a sidelong glance to Rick.  Once Rick realized that it was just Negan and Maggie barging through the door, he had quickly lowered his gun.  Negan hasn’t liked the look on Rick’s face all day.  Just that morning they were so happy.  They’d found the prison and had a plan.  They’d been laughing and fighting over what CD to listen to.  Then, the barn and Sophia, and Rick’s face had just…sank into a look of angry despair.  Now, this.  Now, Rick’s face is hard.  Harder even than when he had to kill Sophia. 

“Rick had to do it,” Glenn chimes in from over where he and Maggie are helping Hershel, who is fucking wasted, to stand.  “They were threatening us to take the farm.  Originally they said they wanted us to help out with their camp, take the rest of their group in, but when Rick said no, Dave got violent.”

“Dave?” Negan asks.

“That one over there,” Rick says, casually fiddling with the cylinder of his revolver.  Shit, Negan hadn’t even seen the one behind the bar.

“Are there more?” Negan asks, and he's actually only talking about in the bar itself that Rick has killed.  But then, he focuses in on what Glenn said: “Their camp?”

“I don’t know.  But if there are, then the rest of them can’t be far behind.”  Rick shoves his gun back in the holster, cool and calm, but Negan can see a discomfort in him.  He looks like a kid who’s just pulled a fucking groin muscle doing something stupid to impress his friends, and is now trying to force a walk to pretend like he isn’t crying like a little girl inside from pain.

And it hits Negan, later than it should have.

Rick has murdered these people.

Rick is a killer.

**

“We need to leave,” Rick says, but no sooner does he say it that they hear the echo of footsteps outside.  Rick makes a shushing motion, like Negan needed a fucking clue.  Negan pokes Maggie and nods his head over to Dave’s abandoned handgun on the bar.  She slowly walks over to it and grabs it.  The sound of voices gets close, right outside the bar.

“There’s a bar in town, and it isn’t the first place anybody thought to look for them?” a voice calls out.

“Well, how the fuck should I know?  Don’t know where anything is in this god damn town.”  Another couple of voices ring out, and there’s at least four of them out there.  Mother fucking shit.

They all duck down and listen nervously to the sounds of bootsteps walking up and down the sidewalk outside the bar.  They almost go past, but then a hand tries to open the door.  Glenn slides himself in front of it, only realizing how fucking stupid that is after it’s already been done.

Rick and Negan meet eyes, and Negan shakes his head at Rick.  If he weren’t on the other side of the door, he would fucking reach out and slap his hand over Rick’s face.  But he isn’t, so of course all he can do is bite his lip and glare when Rick actually calls out to them.

**

They try running out the back door, but there’s somebody waiting for them in the alley.  Gunshots ring out, and for a horrible second Negan thinks that he’s already broken his promise to Maggie when Glenn falls down behind the dumpster. 

“Negan, he’s there!  At the end of the alley.  You’ve got the rifle.  Can you get him?” Rick shouts, and, in his head, Negan is turning and shouting at Rick 'What the fuck do you expect me to do?  Shoot him?'  But his arms are already up, and he’s gazing down the barrel, just like they’ve been practicing.  He can see a vague outline of a man at the end of it, and maybe it’s a trick of the mind, but he swears that by the time he sees the man’s face, he’s already pulled the trigger.

He doesn’t miss. 

He hears a wail and a horrible shout of pain.  It’s not like in the movies, where it’s dramatic and high-pitched.  It sounds like it comes from some deep, echoing cavern, rubbed raw on the way out.  He thinks that he might even hear tears in it.

“Negan!  The roof!”  Before Negan can even figure out what he means, Rick has grabbed him by his jacket and yanked him back into the building, right as a piece of brick explodes next to Negan’s face.  He feels moisture and he thinks that he’s been shot, but he knows that can’t be, because he wouldn’t be alive to worry about being shot in the head.

“Fuck!  Fucking fuck!” he shouts.  He brings shaking fingers to his face and comes back with blood, but only tiny droplets.  He's probably just scraped by flying brick shrapnel.

“Where’s Glenn?” Maggie cries.  She and Hershel have been waiting further inside the storeroom. 

“He’s out there.  I don’t know…”

“Glenn!” Maggie cries, running to the doorway, before Hershel grabs on to her and stops her.

“Negan!” Rick shouts again, and Negan snaps his eyes back to Rick.  He must look fucking wild-eyed, because Rick puts a hand on his shoulder and says: “I need you with me.  I need you to help me take down the guy on the roof.”

“Ok.”  He waits for it.  “What do I do?”

“I want you to make your way to the roof.  You have the rifle, and you’re a good shot.  Set up there, and get eyes on him.  He’s on the roof of the next building over, 3 o’clock, next to the chimney.  I’m gonna keep firing at him down here, distract him.  You get your shot, you take it.  You got me?”

And Rick…Rick is fucking amazing, is what he is.  They lock eyes, and Negan feels the plan like it’s a physical, tangible thing that’s been handed to him. 

“Alright.  Once I’ve done it, you should double around the back of the building, instead of the front.  That’s where the one I…the shot one…came from.  They’re all out in the street.  Go down the alley to the back, hop the fence, and circle to the front.  Maggie and I parked the truck further down the block.  We should split up.  If Glenn’s hurt, he’s gonna slow us down.”  And it’s almost…almost…like coaching again: evaluating, assessing, strategizing contingency plans. 

“I’ll have Maggie and Hershel wait with Glenn for a few minutes.  I’ll run out and around and grab the truck and come back for you.  Maggie, Glenn and Hershel will wait for a few minutes while I draw them away and then get into the other car.  They head east down the road; we head west.  Everybody keep driving for at least an hour in circles before heading back to the farm.  Got it?”

“Got it,” Negan agrees, before slapping Rick on the shoulder as he runs past him. 

Alright, Negan.  You got this. 

**

He finds the stairs to the roof, which of course ends in a locked fucking door.  Thankfully, it’s a small town bar, so there’s not much to the lock.  A few bashes with Lucille knocks the handle right out.  A firm kick opens the door the rest of the way.  He raises his rifle back up and slowly steps out onto the roof, squatting and crouching low to avoid being seen by the other shooter on the opposite roof.  He hears the sporadic, empty threat of Rick’s gunfire below, and one must come close to the sniper, because Negan sees a ducking movement right by the brick chimney. 

Negan moves closer to the roof’s edge, balancing the rifle on the edge.  It’s easier than it was the first time, to line up the iron sights with the other man’s head.  Negan sees that every time Rick fires, the man jerks his head back behind the chimney, unwittingly putting himself right back in Negan’s sights.  Negan waits for it, the explosion that means Rick has fired, and there it is. 

There’s Negan’s fucking moment.

The rifle kicks like a bitch in his shoulder, and by the time Negan has recovered, and lifted his head back up, he can’t see the other guy anymore.  He holds his breath for the longest fucking count, to see if he pops back up.  In the distance, he can still hear the first guy moaning in pain at the mouth of the alley, and Negan just wants to fucking shoot him again, just to shut him the fuck up.

Suddenly, he hears footsteps below, and he risks peeking his head over the side.  Rick has run out, stopped ostentatiously, then run down the alley to circle around the building.  His movements must attract attention, because more raised shouts echo in the night.  Negan follows his progress to the edge of the building, until he scurries out of sight around a corner.  Maybe thirty seconds go by before Hershel and Maggie come out cautiously.  Well, Hershel cautiously: Maggie, running out and falling on top of Glenn immediately.  Hershel, despite his age, is clearly strong as a mother fucking ox, because he bends down and practically lifts Glenn up himself, getting the kid’s arm over his shoulder.  Maggie looks on worriedly, and Negan himself almost doesn’t see the man running down the alley toward them, until it’s too late.

“Maggie!” he shouts, lifting up the rifle and calculating how good his luck is going to be today if he can shoot a third person without hitting her, too.

His fears are for nothing, as she turns and swings her arm in a huge arc, the wrench she had tucked into her pants earlier now in hand and making a wet, thudding sound against his skull.

“Holy shit, honey,” Negan mumbles to himself, before turning his attention back to the mouth of the alley, to look for any others.  Other than the still moaning guy bleeding out in the street, and the man she just pummeled, there’s nobody else visible.  They’re all chasing Rick as he runs toward the car.  Negan fires blindly into the night to scare them off, as Maggie grabs Glenn’s other arm and she and Hershel stumble-walk the opposite way to the street. Painfully slowly, they get into Hershel’s car.

Negan’s smiling to himself when all of a sudden another truck rolls up and yells: “They’re coming!  The dead!  They’re coming!”

And trapped on top of a roof, now seeing the silhouettes of at least a dozen Walkers converging on all this fucking noise they’ve been making, Negan feels fucking fucked.

**

He’s never done windsprints any faster than he runs down those fucking stairs.  Negan barrels out into the street, heedless of Dave and Tony’s avenging crew.  There’s a Walker already on him when he hits the street, but a mighty swing with Lucille dispatches that problem.  But there’s a bunch of them slowly ambling toward him and he has nowhere to go but back inside the bar.  He has no fucking clue where Rick is, but he knows he’ll be coming back for Negan.  He just needs to stay alive long enough. 

He turns to run back into the bar, before realizing the windows have all been shot out.

“Shit,” he swears feelingly, and runs to the next building over, which thankfully has a door open, and slams it hard behind him.  The building isn’t sound-proofed, so he can hear the voices outside.  They’re still screaming warnings and demands to hop into trucks.  Jesus, how many more of these people are there? 

He hears the moans of the one he shot in the alley.  He’s crying not to be left behind, until he very abruptly isn’t anymore.  It’s quiet, except for the moans of Walkers outside and Negan’s very winded breaths as he collapses to the floor, back to the door.

Negan closes his eyes and leans his head back to rest on the door.

When he opens them, it’s to lock eyes with a stranger.

**

“Hey man, please!  Don’t hurt me!” The man--a kid, really--throws his hands up comically, dropping the hunting rifle he was carrying.

“Don’t hurt you?” Negan snarls, getting to his feet and his rifle ready in record time.  “Who the fuck was shooting at who out there, huh?”

“H-honestly?  I don’t even know?  I was just lookout on the roof, and all of a sudden there’s gunfire.  I-I-I don’t even know how to use this thing!”  He really is a kid.  Barely any older than Beth, and certainly not older than Maggie.

“Who are you fucking people?  Where are you from?  And I swear to God, kid, if you fucking lie to me, you will be wearing your own asshole as a hat and your scrote as a tie.”

“My-my name’s Randall!” the kid shouts.

“Keep your fucking voice down,” Negan whispers.

“My name’s Randall!” the kid repeats, whisper-soft, like somehow Negan missed it the first time.

“Alright, Randall.  Where are the rest of your group?”

“I don’t know.  They just took off.  Left me here!”  He looks scared, but shit, so is Negan, and that doesn’t make Negan any less dangerous.  “We’re just looking around, trying to get supplies.  We had no idea anyone else was here.”

“Well, that’s fucking good news.  How many of you are there?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t know how many you guys shot just now, but before there was, like, 30?  Forty?”

“Fuck,” Negan swears.  That’s a lot of guns and pissed off guys massing just out of their sight. 

“Yeah, it’s the biggest group I’ve been able to stick with.  Ya know, safety in numbers?”  the kid smiles at him, nervously, and he reminds Negan of his kids when they’re up to bullshit, and are trying to come across friendly-like.  Like Negan’s a fucking idiot.

“Why are your friends so pissed off…Randall, right?”

“Yeah!  Randall!”  And the kid is so eager to have Negan see him as a person, he almost feels bad for the kid.  Every team has a shit-catcher, and Negan has no doubt this one’s it.  “And I mean, I don’t know why they’re so pissed off.  Except, ya know, they always are.  Can I…put my arms down now?”

“You put them anywhere I can’t see and you won’t be keeping them.  You hear me, dipshit?”

“Yes, sir.”  He pulls his arms down and just…looks at Negan.

“I don’t recognize you.” The kid sounds flummoxed at that, and Negan can’t figure out why.

“Well, shit, kid, why would you?”

“Nah, it’s just, I’ve been with this group for a while.  They’ve been here a few weeks now.  I’ve got a good brain for faces.  We haven’t run into you guys before.”

Negan sighs.  “I ain’t from around here, kid.  We were just passing through.  And I would like for that to continue.  You go your fucking way, I go mine.”

“Can I come with you?”

“What?!  Fuck, no.  You don’t get to fucking shoot at us, shit on my day, then follow me home like a sad fucking puppy.”

“No, I get it.  It’s just…those guys.  They’re not great guys.”

“Yeah, I’m seeing that.”

“No, I mean.  Yeah, they steal sometimes and all, and they’ve killed people who’ve tried to steal from them, but they also…  A few nights ago, we came across a dad, with his two daughters.  They…they were really horrible to his daughters.  Made him watch.  Killed him, after.”

And Negan flashes back to that night spent with Rick in their car, listening to the screams of two women on the breeze, lasting for far too long to be simply devoured by Walkers.  He begins to see red.  

“What did you say?”

“They raped those girls.  It was awful.”  Randall is kind of staring off into the distance, like he's reliving the event.  It becomes very important to Negan to see if there's any trace of fond remembrance on his face.  There isn't; but there isn't any remorse, either.

“And what did you do to stop it?”

“N-nothing, sir.  I was scared.”  Negan bows his body up and tilts his shoulders forward, a dangerous loom settling into his bones.

“Did you join them?”

“Kinda?  They made me!”  

Negan lunges forward and grabs Randall by the front of his shirt.  “And you fucking think I’m gonna bring you back to my people?”

Randall splutters and tries to lean back away from Negan's face.  “I would never do anything to hurt Maggie!”

And Negan’s stomach clenches.  He feels his rage cool into fear.

“You know Maggie?”

“Yeah,” Randall nods, excitedly.  “I mean, we went to high school together, but not the same grade or anything.  I know her brother more than anything.  But I recognized Mr. Greene running out to the car.  I hadn’t thought they’d survived.  I hadn’t thought anyone had survived.  If I’d known the farm was still safe, I would have ditched those guys long ago, and gone over there.”

“You know where the farm is.”

“Dude, you really aren’t from around here, are you?  Everyone knows where everyone’s house is here.”

And it’s time.  They time of hard choices is now, and Negan’s hard choice has come.

** 

Negan has two options.  Only two: kill Randall here and now, or let him go and risk waking up one morning to find him and his crew on their doorstep.  There is no other option.  Randall knows who they are and where they're staying.  He knows that Negan and Rick have killed some of their group.  He's obviously a kid looking to ingratiate himself into a crowd; swearing Randall to secrecy will do nothing.  He'll sell them out in a heartbeat.

Negan knows the smart thing to do.  He can feel it in his bones.  But, Jesus, he can't kill a man in cold blood.  He can't.  

But he thinks of Maggie and Beth, and Duane and Carl, and he knows that he can.

"Listen," Randall starts, sensing that Negan is debating something within himself.  "I don't know the deal with your group.  But it looks to me like they left you here."

"Look who's talking," Negan responds.  He knows Rick's gonna come back for him.  He has no doubts on that score.  Rick didn't travel miles to go pick up Hershel from a bar, spend weeks looking for Sophia, just to leave Negan stuck in a building to starve.

"I'm just saying, you're stuck here, now.  And I don't think they're coming back for you.  You could come back to our group.  It's not too far away from here.  If we wait it out, we might be able to get out of here.  They'll probably take you in.  You're big.  You look strong. Heh, you're probably stronger than me.  They'll take you in.  And, maybe if you tell them where the rest of your group is, they can work on, ya know, resolving some stuff.  We could still join up together."

"Any women in your camp?" Negan asks.

Randall latches onto Negan's inquiry with enthusiasm.  "A few, yeah.  I mean, they're not too happy, but they get it.  The world's a different place now.  They might fight it a little, but...better that than be on their own out there.  At least we feed them and keep the Lamebrains out."

And Negan has decided.  And in the end, his hard choice becomes a little less hard.  Randall doesn't even see it coming, which is good.  He seems like the type to cry and beg, and right now, if Negan hears that, it might actually sway him.  And he doesn't live in a world where he can afford to be swayed, anymore.  The bullet from the rifle destroys Randall's head, and it's fucking gross as shit, is what it is.  His body slumps to the ground and Negan just stands there for a solid two minutes, before suddenly throwing up, right there.

Weirdly, he's reminded of when Lucille got her initial diagnosis.  It's that same frozen feeling of not knowing how you should react.  Of your body instinctively understanding that everything is different now, and in a truly terrible way, but your mind not quite catching up yet.  It was a similar moment that separated him from being "husband with marital issues", to "impending widower."  This is the moment that propels him from being "Negan: Big Talker and Comic Relief" to "Negan: Murderer."

The gunshot seems to have energized the Walkers outside, but thankfully the door is reinforced pretty strongly.  Negan listens to the sound of their wet, spongy hands battering a hungry beat against the door: the only sound, now that Randall's jibbering has been silenced and the echo of the gunshot has faded.

He cries. 

 **

Later, Negan sits, back to the door, arms perched on his knees.  He’s thinking a lot, and yet not at all.  He’s doing mental math in his head.  Down to 19, after all.  Nineteen, all this time.  But now there’s a new tabulation: Three.  The guy in the alley.  The guy on the roof.  Randall. 

He hears a shotgun blast and a honking horn in the distance.  He jumps up and runs to the window.  As expected, Hershel’s car is slow-rolling down the road.  Somebody is honking the horn at a rate of approximately 500 times per fucking second, and Glenn is leaning out the side window, blasting a shotgun into the air.  The Walkers start following the car, and Negan smiles.

He gives it a full 5 minutes, watching the Walkers follow the Greenes to the East, and then swings open the door and steps outside.  From the West, comes Otis’ truck, Rick at the wheel.  It’s probably the most beautiful sight Negan has seen in years.  He sprints to the truck, and vaults inside.

“Fucking drive.”

“No need to say it twice.”

**

Rick takes the long way back, giving Maggie time to lead the Walkers away from the farm.  She knows the roads better and had apparently sworn to circle around another way, once she's led the Walkers sufficiently far enough away and lost them.  He and Rick don’t need to be so cautious, but Rick wants to make sure they aren’t followed back.

It’s a long, uncomfortable silence.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For coming back for me.”  Rick’s look of affront makes it worth it.

“Of course.  I wouldn’t leave you behind.”

“You shouldn’t say that.  There might come a day when you have to.”

“Yeah, well.  That day isn’t today.”  Negan holds out his hand for a fist bump, which Rick looks askance at at first, doing a legit double-take, before he smiled and fist bumps back. 

"All I can say is that I hope Hershel doesn't start making a habit of this.  He's not gonna start up a fucking drinking problem, is he?  Because I do not think his daughter is going to appreciate that."

Rick chuckles.  "Nah, I talked with him.  He was in a dark place, but I think he's doing better."

"Oh?"  Negan is skeptical.  Hershel had obviously been drinking pretty aggressively.  Not too many epiphanies happen while that level of wasted.  Not any good ones, anyway, and certainly none that stick past the sobering.

"He said...well, he said that he feels like he was cheated out of a miracle.  He said that he saw me and Carl running across his field, and he felt hope.  And then he saved Carl, and he felt like a miracle had happened.  Like everything was going to get better.  And then the barn, and his family.  It pulled the rug out from him."  Unexpectedly, Negan pities Hershel.  He can relate; he has seen Rick as something of a bringer of luck, if not necessarily miracles.  When Shane and Andrea had talked about everyone believing Sophia was dead, Negan had been the first to deny it.  He had, despite all logic and common sense, believed.  Not because there was reason to, but because Rick had said there was no reason not to.  Beyond the grief of watching a beloved, innocent child die, there was also the death of that certainty.  Negan could no longer believe in Rick's promise that all would be well; but he could believe in the fact that Rick had come back for him.

"Well, I think we all had the rug pulled out today.  So, if he feels like we robbed him of his miracle, why do you think he's going to be ok?"

"Well, actually it was something you  said," Rick chuckles.

"Ha!  No fuck?"

"You told me that Lori being pregnant wasn't the end of the world.  That women have been giving birth since the dawn of time. That the important things haven't changed.  And you were right.  There's always been death.  Always been uncertainty.  And we did what we had to in spite of it, and we still have to.  No matter what.  It seemed to help."

"Well, ain't I fucking smart?" Negan laughs, and Rick does, too.

“Anyway, I hope you weren’t too worried while you were waiting.”

“No, I wasn’t.  But, I wasn’t alone.”

“What?” Rick almost swerves off the road, before cursing and correcting course.  And Negan tells him.  Tells him the whole story about Randall, and his knowledge of Hershel’s farm.  And how Negan made sure that nobody else would ever know.

“Well, what the fuck was I supposed to do with him?  What were we gonna do with him, even if we saved him?  Remember what happened with Merle?  You really think we would have been able to sit on him forever?  You want another fight like with Dale and Andrea again?  And Christ forbid he escaped!”

"Negan..." Rick says, softly, and Negan realizes that, other than asking some initial questions early on, Rick hadn't said anything, one way or the other, about what Negan has done.  He's been shouting out justifications and denials to nobody but himself.  "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?  Sorry for what?"  You didn't just fucking kill a kid, he doesn't say.

"I've brought this on us.  Started us down this path."

"Are we talking about Hershel's farm and Fort Benning again?" Negan rolls his eyes, aggravated.  Negan's fucking world has changed tonight; are they still really worrying about plans?  And...yes, of course they are.  They have to.  But, Rick continues on.

"No.  Fort Benning is no longer an option.  Dave and Tony said they ran into one of the guardsmen from there.  It's gone.  Overrun."

"Well, I get to be the one to fucking rub that in Shane's fucking face."  Negan can hear his own voice.  It's taking on a hysterical edge that he does not like.  So he decides to squash it by focusing on Rick, instead.  "So, what now, then?"

Rick is silent a long moment, staring out at the road like it's not even there.  "I don't know."  Rick shrugs and shakes his head before looking over.  "All the plans we had don't work.  There is no hope.  And now I've made things worse."

"Worse than no hope?"  Negan rubs his thumb along the grip of Lucille, smoothing out a splinter.  It soothes him.

"I killed those men.  And I'm afraid I've started something with the rest of them that we can't fix."

"Well, from what Randall says, and from how they reacted, I would say it's not something that you started.  I think they were set in their ways long before we came along."

"But maybe we could have talked it out.  Worked together."  Rick trails off, and for a second Negan thinks he's talking to Negan still when he whispers.  ”What have I done?”

“You’ve kept us safe,” Negan answers, immediately and irrevocably.

“At what cost?”

And Negan can't handle it.  Can't handle Rick beating himself up over defending his own life, when Negan has just killed an unarmed boy.  Can't stand Rick acting like the worst person in this car right now, when he so clearly is not.  “You think those shitstains trying to kill us are a cost?" he snarls.  "None of those fucks are worth you, or Lori, or Duane or, hell, even Andrea.  Dave and Tony would have taken everything we have.  And there were others out there.  Are probably still more.”

“It can’t always be us versus them.  It can’t.”

“Maybe it won’t always be.  But it was today.”

Rick doesn’t look convinced.  His head is bowed as they drive aimlessly into the night.

“What made them different?” Negan asks, choosing to watch the moths attracted to their headlights than look at Rick.

“What?” Rick asks, distracted.

“What made Dave and Tony different?”

“Different from what?”

“From me.  From Morgan and Duane.  From Daryl.  You’ve been all about sticking together for survival and making room for everyone.  Why were Dave and Tony different?  What was it about them that made you think they couldn’t fit here?”

“We don’t have room for them…”

“Oh, bull fucking shit.  We got nothing but space here.  Tell me honestly, why did you think you couldn’t trust them to join us?”

“Because I just knew.  I knew by the way they walked and the way they talked.  One of the first things Tony asked about was whether we had any women.  Not food, not water.  Women.  And I knew.  I knew I could never bring them here.  Not with Maggie, and Beth, and Andrea around.  Not around Lori.  Tony took a piss, right there in the middle of the bar as I watched him.  Like a fucking animal.  Being a cop, you can just tell, when the humanity has left a person.  And it had left them.  They had a…desperation in their eyes.  I’ve seen it before.  It was there in the eyes of the men that shot me that day.  It was how I ended up in that hospital.”

And Negan has forgotten how it was that he found Rick.  That Rick had faced death just to wake up and face it again.  Just like Rick has forgotten that Negan knew the misery of watching someone you love die in front of you, without any help at all from Walkers or the apocalypse.  Just like Rick had told Hershel: nothing’s changed.  Not really.

“Well,” Negan responds, shrugging.  “There you go.  You have your answer Rick.”  Rick is silent for a long minute, before nodding, just once.  Negan can’t tell if it’s an acknowledgement or an agreement, or both, but Rick pulls himself together and he seems ready to face the world again.

“Don’t tell anyone what happened, please.”

“Rick, they're gonna know something happened.”

“Maybe so.  But don’t tell them about Dave and Tony, or what we talked about.  I don’t want them to look at me and see a killer.”

“Us, you mean.” Rick shoots his head up to Negan’s glance.  “Both of us are killers, now, Rick.”

"Don't say that."

"It's true, isn't it?"

"There's a lot of things that are true that I don't want my boy to know about just yet."

"Rick, you can't baby Carl..."

"Christ, will you and Shane quit telling me how to raise my son!" Rick barks it out, and Negan knows that it's not really meant for him, but he rises to the argument anyway.

"What, you want Carl to end up like Sophia?"  And it's a low fucking blow, and it causes Rick to slam the brakes of the car fucking hard.

"Ow, Jesus!" Negan rubs his forehead where he smacked into the visor.  

"My boy told my wife today that he wishes he had been the one to shoot Sophia.  A ten year old boy told his mother he wished he had killed a creature with his friend's ten year old face, and then ran off to play ball.  You tell me that that's normal!  The only way he doesn't end up being completely devoid of, of human feeling is for him to look at his father and not see a killer.  Are you going to tell them about Randall?  Do you want them to look at you that way?”

“I want them to look at me and see a man willing to do what he has to keep his family safe.”

“Is that what you are?”

“I’m getting there.”

Rick doesn't have a response to that and Negan fears that they've crossed some line, and now the farms going to be a million times tenser for not having Rick's friendship.  Instead, Rick tries to re-start the truck, which had stalled out on Rick's sudden slamming of the breaks, and it won't fucking turn over.  They're stuck.

They start laughing.  Hysterically, and without joy, but they're laughing together still.  So that's something.

**

"Well, good news is that's the farm over that rise."  Negan can just see a slightly inkier black outline below a black night sky.  He assumes that must be the rise Rick's pointing out.

"Bad news?"

"We're walking."

"Fuck."

"That's the spirit."

They start trudging over a fence and through what must be the front acres of Hershel's property.  There's a thick treeline that blocks Hershel's house from view, and he and Rick will have to pass through it to get to the house.

"I fucking hate nature."  Rick laughs at Negan's whining.  

"I hate to break it to you, but this ain't even really nature."

"I am so fucking looking forward to having an indoor room once we move into that prison, I don't even care if it's covered in convict jizz."

"Jesus, Negan."

"What?  What do you think those sad little peckers are getting up to in there?"  Rick laughs and then goes quiet.  Negan worries for a minute, but he needn't have.

"I'm sorry, Negan.  We all made choices tonight.  Choices we had to.  I didn't mean to sound like I was judging you."  Negan narrowly avoids stepping into a cow turd, which gives him the excuse not to look directly in Rick's sincere eyes.

"Nah, it's fine.  You're right, we start forgetting about what we're fighting for, we're no better than Dave and Tony.  You have your family to think of."  Negan tries not to sound too bitter at that last bit.

Their conversation is saved from the realm of awkward mushiness by the pants wetting terror of a Walker appearing out of fucking nowhere.  Its slavering growl is right up in Negan's face and so Negan gets a really great view of a sharp-tipped arrow exploding a filmy eye socket less than 6 inches from his face.

"Jesus!" Negan shouts, falling backward to get away from the now limp corpse.

"Fucking heard you's two from a mile away," Daryl drawls.  He saunters forward in his hillbilly way and yanks the arrow out of the Walker's head.  "Was heading to the road to see if you were coming.  Yer damn wife was pestering me about it."  Daryl's gruff voice seems to be hiding some inner resolution, and Negan's relieved to see that, whatever had Daryl in his little self-isolating funk seems to have resolved itself.  Maybe there is some hope left in this world, after all.

"Move, ya dumb ox," Daryl grunts, grabbing Negan's bicep and lifting him up.

Yeah, definitely some hope left.

**

They get back to the house and it appears Glenn and the Greenes have beaten them back.  Thankfully, in the rush of getting Hershel to Beth, nobody asks too many questions.  Yet.  Negan is too wired to rest, and doesn’t have anything else to do to be useful, and, frankly, needs some time to be by himself.  He volunteers to do watch duty.  

Morgan finds Negan as Negan is two hours into his watch shift on top of the RV.  It’s been quiet, thankfully, and it’s given him lots of opportunity to think.  It started out with thinking about Dave and Tony at the bar, if that had even been their real names.  It’s given him opportunity to think about the unseen others that were, and must surely still be, out there. All he can think about is the 30 or 40 men Randall talked about, and their guns.  And Otis's broken-down truck down by the side of the road like a goddamn beacon showing those strangers exactly where they are.   It puts him on edge, and he almost ends up punching Morgan in the face as his head pokes up over the ladder to get atop the RV. 

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” Morgan apologizes, before lifting an eyebrow in silent question.

“Come on up, neighbor.  Don’t worry about it.”  Morgan pulls himself the rest of the way up.  All the jostling has got to be waking up Dale and Duane, who have been sleeping inside it lately, now that Andrea has vacated it in favor of snuggling in with Shane at night. 

“Can’t sleep?” Negan asks.

“Actually I’m tired as can be, man.  I just wanted to talk to you privately about something, and you haven’t been alone all day.  Figured I’d wait ‘til everyone was asleep.”

“Why, Morgan!  You sly fucking fox.  I know we’ve had slim pickin’s lately but…” Morgan chuckles, lightly and lowly, which seems to be the only volume of joy that Morgan has anymore.  Negan wonders what Morgan was like before….well, before.  There are only a few that he actually wonders that about.  Rick and Lori of course, since Rick has mentioned that their marriage was strained before his coma.  Shane, too, since Rick seems so fucking attached to him for some reason.  But Morgan is the only one who confounds him.  “What do you need, Morgan?”  Negan figures that if the quiet man has put this much thought into the conversation, it must be something important.

Morgan is quiet for a long minute, before opening with: “That was a shame about Sophia.”  It’s like being gut-punched all over again, and all Negan can respond with is: “Yeah.”

“I had hope.  I really did.  Foolish, maybe, but as a father…  Well, I can understand why somebody would cling to that hope, even when there’s nothing else.  You ever have kids?” Morgan asks, looking at him sideways.  For all that he, Rick, and Morgan and Duane had started out on this thing together, they hadn’t really talked about their lives before, beyond the specific circumstances that led them to being on the road and in the same town at the same time. 

Lucille had had a few pregnancies, and an equal number of miscarriages.  The question slaps him in the face with those memories and Negan can only swallow and shake his head no.  Morgan leaves it at that.

“They change your world, man.  I wasn’t always the best man.  Wasn’t always the best husband, either.  But, when my son was born, it made me new.  It’s awful that this is what I brought him into.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Negan responds, rough.  “That isn’t fair.  He’s got a dad looking out for him.  And a whole fucking clan of people to help out.  That’s not nothing.  Shit, it’s more than some kids I knew had before the world turned to shit.  Shit ain’t over til it’s over.”  Morgan looks a little surprised by the perspective, but, rather than look affronted or defensive or, God forbid, inspired, he simply nods and looks thoughtful.  It is, Negan will come to understand later, one of the many things he likes about Morgan.  Beyond his love for his son, he is a receptive and philosophical soul…when not being such a fucking sad sack. 

“That brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about.”  Negan cocks his head, willing him to go on.  “I wanted to ask you, if anything happens to me, would you…would you be the one to look after Duane for me?”  Negan is stunned.  For all that he was put in charge of kids for years, it’s not like anybody trusted him to raise one or anything. 

“Morgan…”

“I’m not planning on dying tomorrow or anything,” Morgan laughs ruefully.  “I plan to stick this thing out as long as I can, for him.  And who knows, maybe one day for me, too.  But we’ve seen now what can happen, in the blink of an eye.  Could have just as easily been Duane as Sophia.  Could just as easily have been me.  I’ll die myself before I have to have somebody put Duane down like Rick had to Sophia.  Lord knows I won’t be able to do it.  I’d die first.”

“You know that any one of us will look out for him, don’t you?  Rick’s not gonna leave Duane behind.  Carol or Daryl or Dale, they’re not gonna let him fend for himself.”

“Oh, I know that.  But, I heard Lori talking the other day, about how scared she was for Carl, and for the new baby.  That, for the adults there is a well of happiness to draw from, and that, for the children, that well is a lot emptier.  I want Duane to survive.  But, I want him to be happy, too.  And I think that you would make sure that happened, Negan.  It would help me sleep easier at night, knowing that Duane has somebody who will step in for me.”

“Morgan,” he starts, but he doesn’t have any answer he can give other than: “Of course, man.”

“Thank you.”  Morgan leans his head back and looks at the stars.  “It really is beautiful out here.”

“Yeah, for however much longer that lasts,” Negan says, mind automatically going to their farm removal deadline.

“For however much longer it lasts,” Morgan agrees.  Morgan smiles at him, a big white-toothed smile splitting the night like lightning before it’s gone.  Morgan claps him on the shoulder and climbs down from the RV.

The next morning, Negan, punch-drunk from being up all night, dares Duane and Carl to run to the front porch and back to see which of them gets to practice with Lucille today.  They run off at a sprint at first, with Carl falling behind quickly due to his recovering body.  Duane slows his pace to stay only a few steps ahead of Carl.  As Negan chuckles, Morgan walks by on his way to use the bathroom inside the house.

“How’d you sleep last night, Morgan?” Negan calls out.

“Like a baby, Negan.”

Chapter Text

He’s not sure how long he wanders the area, carrying Judith and being so damn grateful that she’s not a crier. Thank fucking Christ somebody had set her diaper bag next to the carrier, because he’s not sure what he would do if he had to wander what’s left of the world alone and with no fucking food for this kid. To have to watch her starve, to have to decide to end her misery sooner rather than later….and shit, of all the horrible choices he’d been spared from making, why is this the first one he has to do alone? How can he have to face losing this precious sign of hope? This last part of Rick?

Oh Christ, Rick. The beating he’d taken from that fucking Governor had been fierce, but he’d still been able to stagger away when the prison finally fell. Negan had seen Rick and Carl for a while, but with everyone scattering, it was impossible to say how far they got. Surely, Negan would have stumbled across some sign of *somebody* by now?
Negan’s about to give up, when he sees it. A Walker, but it’s been shot straight in the forehead. Somebody has been through here!
He finds a giant can of chocolate pudding lying in the middle of the road. The chocolate is still fresh. Whoever it is, they can’t be too far ahead. He goes up to the first house he sees, and could piss himself in happiness.

Rick and Carl are sitting there, on the couch.

*

“Well now, he is officially—finally,” he says as an aside to Carl, who laughs, “More man than beard.”

Although, Jesus, now that the beard is gone, the bruises on his face and neck are even more vivid. Negan has to tamp down on hot, festering anger when he sees it. He instead chooses to focus on how nice it is to see Rick looking like he did when they first met. Or, shit, looking alive, at all. Rick rolls his eyes and smirks before ruffling Carl’s hair and leaning down to kiss Judith’s head, as she dangles in Carl’s arms. He straightens up and meets Negan’s eyes. They shine briefly with something…fondness, gratitude, happiness. Maybe none of these. Maybe all of them. Whatever it is, Negan returns it.

“Alright, then. First things first. We’ve got to find some food and supplies.” Nobody mentions that the reason they now have none is because their home is, once again, gone. And so might be their friends.

“Let me go put on my shoes,” Rick starts, but Negan shuts that shit down.

“Fuck, Rick, you look like shit on toast. Carl and I will go. You stay here and rest with Judith.” Rick obviously wants to fight this, because of course he fucking does, so Negan illustrates his point by lightly shoving Rick’s shoulder, and the man falls over into the counter.

“Yeah, Dad. You’re useless right now,” Carl chimes in. Negan’s had to deal with pubescent and adolescent kids long enough that he can recognize surly teenage tension when he hears it. His suspicion in reinforced when Rick frowns.

“Fine. Point taken. But don’t go too far off.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Negan ignores him as he takes Judith from Carl, lifting her up above his head and bouncing her for a second, making her laugh. “Bye, sweets. Be good for your father.” Rick follows him and Carl to the front door.

“Barricade the door behind us,” Negan says, though he knows that Rick and Carl have already been doing it. He can’t help himself.

“I will,” Rick responds. Carl is already wandering down the front walk as Negan lingers on the porch. Negan turns to face Rick fully. Rick is standing there, Judith on a hip, just beyond the door jamb. It feels like a forgotten dream. A lover seeing him to the door as he heads off to work. Children, a huge, nice house. It’s a dream, and Negan can feel himself falling into that safety trap. For a moment, it’s nice to pretend.

He puts an arm out and roughly cups the side of Rick’s face, stroking his thumb gently on his cheek for just a second. Rick leans into it briefly, kissing the edge of Negan’s palm. It’s brief, but precious. Negan turns away finally to follow Carl. He hears the door close behind him, and the scraping of a couch being pushed against it.

*

Carl is quiet as they roam the neighborhood and search the houses. It’s unusual, but then again Carl has just seen his world overturned for…what? The fourth, fifth time? They have almost certainly lost friends. Carl had to watch murders performed right in front of him. Negan tries to joke him out of his funk, but Carl remains impassive.

“Eh, sorry, Carl,” Negan sighs, as they search another house. Negan carefully scans all the rooms as Carl watches his back. “I am just NOT on my game anymore. I always used to be able to make my kids laugh.” He turns back to see the expected look of shock on Carl’s face and smirks. “Guess I’m out of practice.”

“You had kids?” Carl practically shouts. “I mean, what happened to them?”

“Well, that was probably not entirely correct. The kids I meant were my students.”

“*You* were a teacher?” Carl asks, aghast.

“A gym coach.”

“Ugh, that explains so much,” Carl snorts. Negan laughs, and they move down the hallway of this fucking huge house. Negan’s checking the last room on this floor when he hears Carl behind him.

“But, I mean, did you have any kids of your own? Were you even married? Or…whatever?”

“I’ll tell you what, kid. We’ll take a break for a little bit, and we’ll play a game.”

“What game?” Carl asks, suspicious.

Negan fully opens the door to the room he’s just cleared and points over his shoulder to the fully set up rec room, complete with ping pong table.

“The best one there is.”

*

“Seriously?” Carl holds the paddle as if he can’t believe what he’s doing.

“As a fucking heart attack, kid. We’ll play some ping pong, first one to 20 wins. Each point you score, you get to ask a question. Every point I score, I get to ask a question.”

“Ok,” Carl draws out, clearly suspicious of Negan’s intentions.

“Perfect,” Negan grins. He proceeds to score right out the fucking gate, smacking against Carl’s face as an unexpected bonus.

“Argh!” Carl cries out in frustration. “No fair! I wasn’t ready.”

“Yeah, that’s what your girlfriend’s gonna say when you shoot your wad in your pants, slugger.”

“Ugh. Whatever. Fine, ask a question.”

Negan makes a show of thinking about it, leaning back and rolling his eyes to the ceiling. “Alright, then. How about you tell me what has you so quiet today.”

“Can I answer a question with a question?”

“If you’re fucking annoying, you can.” Carl scowls in response. “Fine, I’ll give you a freebie. Since I’m dealing with such a fucking amateur.”

“Are you and my Dad sleeping together?” Negan is silent. This is something he and Rick have never discussed: telling anybody. By rights, Carl should be the first to know, but it had somehow just…never come up. Negan doesn’t feel quite right telling Rick’s son without his permission. But, then again….Fuck that. It’s just as much Negan’s secret as it is Rick’s. And Carl is just as much his responsibility now as Rick’s.

“Yes.” He stares down Carl, and the moment draws out. Carl is as inscrutable as before. Carl silently tosses Negan the ball and sets up to receive another serve. Negan nails the point instantly.

“Is my sleeping with your father bothering you?” Negan is more relieved that he realized he would be when Carl says quietly, “No. Well, not really.”

“Not really?”

“Hey, point first.”

Ugh, fine. Negan slaps another one home, and raises his eyebrow expectantly.

“I guess…That’s just never a side of my dad I thought existed. He and Mom were always…him and Mom.”

“Yeah, I can see that. I never thought I would ever have to worry about being apart from my wife.”

The admission has the intended effect, and Carl blurts out “You had a wife?!” He immediately gestures for Negan to serve another ball. The kid is motivated now, and the ball actually manages to get passed back and forth for a bit. He almost doesn’t have to let Carl score.

“Her name was Lucille.”

“Like your bat?”

“Well, it sounds weird when you say it like that. And no more freebies, kid.” They play another serve, more vigorously this time, and Negan scores another point. He thinks hard for a minute.

“What’s going on with you and your Dad?” Carl feigns ignorance, but Negan slaps the ball at him, drilling him hard in the arm.

“Ow! It’s….nothing, anymore.”

“That’s not an answer.”

Carl becomes emotional. “It’s just…I was so angry with him. For not being able to save our home. For letting Judith die. For pretending to be a farmer when we needed him. *I* needed him,” he shouts the last bit. Then looks ashamed. He picks up the ball and angrily slaps it down the table to score on Negan, who wasn’t ready for it.

“I cheated on my wife.” It’s a gamble, telling Carl this. First of all, because, even if Carl is ok with Negan and his dad fucking, he’s not going to be as cool with his dad fucking a cheater. Secondly: Negan loves Carl, wants Carl to love him back. Carl could easily be disgusted by Negan’s past. But Negan is past the days of caring how 11 year olds see him. That shit is done. “It taught me things, like how people aren’t perfect, and they sometimes don’t have their priorities straight until something comes along and changes them. It also taught me about appreciating the shit that I have before it’s gone. In case I’m being too subtle, little man,” he says, pointing his paddle sharply in Carl’s direction as Carl rolls his eyes in exasperation, “be nice to your dad. He’s trying. And more often than not, he’s succeeding. Which is more than you can say for a lot of dads, even before this shit went down. No matter what happens, you’re gonna be without him a lot sooner than you’re ready for, believe me.”

A long quiet moment passes, and Negan is relieved when Carl finally nods. The room feels lighter.

“Shit, kid, I can’t remember the score anymore. Let’s just say I win, and leave it at that.”

Carl’s indignation is fucking hilarious. “What? No way!”

“Yes fucking way, kid. Now, because I’m the winner, I get to say what the prize is. Winner gets to hang back while the loser clears the next house by himself.”

Negan deliberately picks a house that he knows is empty before setting Carl loose on it, but Carl is looking so fucking accomplished and satisfied as he comes out, you would think he just banged his first chick, or something.

*

They make it back to the house and Negan pounds on the door. Rick answers it after a bit, groggy and disheveled. He’s been sleeping, which is good. He needs it, if they’re going to figure out what they’re going to do next.

“So, is this where we make our stand, or are we moving on?” Negan asks in the kitchen later that night as Rick boils some water to make some of the food they found. It’s tempting: the idea of staying here in this comfortable house and just figuring out a plan. As far as long-term solutions go, it has flaws, but, still. Negan would like to continue pretending that they are all just one, big, happy family.

“Let’s sleep on it and see,” Rick says after a long pause. “It’s not like we’ve got any particular place to be.” It’s a sad attempt at humor, but Negan takes it. They all sit down at the dining table like—Jesus Christ—like an actual family dinner. Rick feeds Judith while picking at his own dinner. Carl excitedly talks about how he’s been clearing houses all by himself. Rick raises an eyebrow at that, but Negan minutely shakes his head, and so Rick lets it go with an “As long as you’re being careful, Carl.”

Carl rolls his eyes and says “Duh, Dad.” But it’s fond, and whatever tension was between them seems to have abated for now. Later, Negan is fucking exhausted and there’s an awkward shuffle as they decide where they’re going to sleep. Negan decides to stay downstairs, to keep watch. He’ll probably fall asleep at some point, but at least he will be able to hear better if anybody tries to break in.

“I’m going to go upstairs with Judith. You and Dad can stay down here and make out, or whatever.” Rick looks like he’s swallowed his own tongue, but Negan laughs.

“Don’t come a running unless it’s *too* quiet,” Negan calls after Carl, who cries out in teenaged put-upon exasperation. With Carl upstairs with Judith, it’s just him and Rick. Negan is too exhausted for anything, and Rick too injured. Still, their faces fall into each other for a good long while, and Negan is just….so happy to still have this. Later, they’re curled up on the couch.

“I don’t know about you, but if we do stay, even for just a little while, I'm *really* looking forward to fucking on that king size bed up there.” He can’t see Rick’s face, but he can practically feel the smile.

“Yeah. Me, too.” Rick falls asleep soon after, and Negan stays awake and listens to cicadas outside. After being in that prison for so long, with the walls so thick and removed from nature, he’s relieved to hear it. They’ve lost a home, yes. But, they’ll figure shit out.

They always do.

They’re down to four. But it’s the only four that matter.